NASA is looking for “ecological gold”. He uses legendary planes for this purpose


Two NASA ER-2 (Earth Resources 2) planes are currently carrying out a series of flights over the USA, the purpose of which is to finding deposits of priceless raw materials. The ER-2 is a variant of the legendary Lockheed U-2 spy plane that was one of the most important air scouts of the Cold War.

Like the U-2, NASA’s ER-2 can fly at altitudes of over 18,000 meters. meters. Although the machines in service with the US Air Force are famous for their espionage exploits, at NASA they are primarily used for Earth research.

The agency’s two ER-2s have been exploring our planet since the 1980s. The planes, converted from U-2 spy planes, have already completed over 4,500 missions, during which they studied the Earth’s atmosphere and the phenomena occurring in it, ozone levels, and were even used to test new satellite sensors .

Now they are back over the American wasteland. It’s a return to the roots. When Americans first developed the legendary spy machines, they were tested over the deserts of the American West. Planes taking off from the infamous Area 51 have been mistaken for UFOs many times.

Since September 2023, one of the agency’s two planes has been conducting reconnaissance flights over the US, during which it is trying to locate deposits of minerals necessary for the production of electronics and clean energy sources. The mission is known as GEMx, or Geological Earth Mapping Experiment, and is being conducted in partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

“The United States depends on supplies of materials that support our economy and national security,” USGS geophysicist Raymond Kokaly said in a statement released by NASA. “These materials have been identified as critical minerals because disruption of their supply would have significant negative economic impacts. Undiscovered deposits of at least some of these critical and strategic minerals almost certainly exist in the United States, but modern geophysical data are needed to expand our understanding of them.” topic”.

The GEMx mission involves flights of NASA’s ER-2 and a modified Gulfstream V business jet over the American Southwest, including California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. For this particular experiment, the ER-2 flies over the arid regions of the continent at an altitude of 19,800 m. During flight, its specialized sensors collect so-called hyperspectral images.

These images consist not only of visible light, but also bands of infrared and thermal radiation, allowing scientists to see “the geophysical complexity behind seemingly simple or monochromatic surfaces.” The measurements can indicate to scientists the presence of key minerals.

The ultimate goal of the mission is U.S. national security. The United States wants to become independent from foreign supplies of electronics. Not only the one used by ordinary people, but above all the one used by government agencies and the army.

“If this mission can identify critical minerals in mineable areas in the U.S., we will be less dependent on foreign entities,” Kevin Reath, deputy manager of NASA’s GEMx program, said in a statement.

In recent years, the US government has made it a priority to increase domestic supplies of these minerals. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order aimed at reducing “overdependence on foreign sources and hostile nations for critical minerals and materials, leading to threats to national and economic security.”

Today, the market for these minerals is controlled by China. “Beijing controls the majority of the market for processing and refining cobalt, lithium, rare earth elements and other critical minerals,” a 2022 White House statement said. NASA expects the GEMx project to cost $16 million and continue through fall 2026.


NASA uses two Lockheed ER-2 aircraft as flying laboratories within the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The planes are stationed in Building 703 of the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, and collect information about Earth’s resources, celestial bodies, atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, and ocean processes. They are also used for research and development of electronic sensors, calibration of satellites and validation of satellite data.

NASA acquired its first ER-2 aircraft in 1981 and the second in 1989. They replaced two Lockheed U-2 aircraft that NASA had used since 1971 to collect scientific data. U-2 planes were developed in the 1950s for the needs of the CIA and the American Air Force, and their first purpose was to spy on the Soviet nuclear and space programs. They also became the cause of a serious crisis in relations between the USA and the USSR after in 1960, the Soviet Air Force managed to shoot down a spy plane piloted by Gary Powers over its own territory.

Even though 60 years have passed since the first flight of the machines, U-2s remain in service with the American Air Force. Two NASA machines, instead of spy equipment, are equipped with sensors that allow them to make precise, scientific measurements of the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface.

Rare earth elements are 17 metallic elements located in the middle of the periodic table (they have atomic numbers 21, 39 and 57-71). These metals have extraordinary fluorescent, conductive and magnetic properties, which make them very useful, especially when mixed in small quantities with more common metals such as iron.

Deposits of these metals occur in many places around the world, and some elements occur in the Earth’s crust in approximately the same abundance as copper or tin. However, rare earth elements are never found in very high concentrations and are usually mixed with radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium.

The chemical properties of rare earth elements make them difficult to separate from surrounding materials and from each other. These characteristics also make them difficult to clean. Current production methods require large amounts of ore and generate large amounts of harmful waste.

Rare earth elements are components of many famous technologies, including smartphones, LED lights and hybrid cars. Several rare earth elements are used in oil refining and nuclear energy; others are important for wind turbines and electric vehicles; and more specialized applications occur in medicine and industry.

The article is in Polish

Tags: NASA ecological gold legendary planes purpose


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