Many astronomy fans are focused on the Perseid meteor showers this week and pilots at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center are no different. But rather than waiting for nightfall and simply watching the streaks of light across the sky, the pilots are flying a Cold War-era spy plane on several missions this week to capture samples of the cosmic dust as it settles through the stratosphere.
The airplane is a civilian version of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane known as an ER-2 (Earth Resources). The aircraft have been used by NASA as a high-altitude science platform for decades, which is actually one of the cover stories used by the airplane maker and CIA when the airplane was originally being developed. This week one of NASA’s ER-2s will fly three separate eight-hour missions at more than 65,000 feet to collect dust from the Perseid meteor showers.
The airplane is equipped with collectors under each wing (the collectors are not in the picture above) and have clam-shell doors that can be controlled by the pilot. Once at altitude the pilot opens the doors, which exposes surfaces that have been coated with a sticky, sterile silicon oil that collects material — hopefully Perseid meteor dust — from the lower stratosphere.