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NASA scientists have poured cold water on the theory that a plane en route to New Zealand narrowly avoided a collision with flaming Russian space junk.

The pilot of the Chilean commercial jetliner reported seeing the debris as they entered Kiwi airspace. Australian reports suggested that pieces of a Russian satellite could be to blame, but NASA says this is unlikely.

Nicholas Johnson, a chief scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Centre, told AP that although there was some Russian debris expected to fall back to Earth, it was not due until 12 hours after the pilot spotted "incandescent material" falling past his plane.

"Unless someone has their times wrong, there appears to be no correlation," he said.

Russian authorities also maintain that the cargo ship Progress M-58 had fallen to Earth when it was expected to. It says that at the time the pilot reported the near-miss, the cargo ship was still attached to the International Space Station.

In the absence of a retired, burning spaceship to explain the sighting, the most likely explanation is that the pilot witnessed a meteor on its way through the atmosphere. Around 50 hit the atmosphere everyday, but most burn up before they hit the ground. ®

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