This Large Area Collector sensor is carried under the wing of a high-altitude NASA ER-2. When the aircraft reaches 65,000 feet altitude, the clam shell-like doors open to reveal pads covered with sticky oil that traps microscopic cosmic material. (NASA / Tom Tschida) › View Larger Image
The Large Area Collector sensor is mounted under the wing of NASA's ER-2 high-altitude aircraft as it awaits a cosmic dust collection mission. Collected samples provide valuable information about the origin and the history of the solar system. (NASA / Tom Tschida) › View Larger Image NASA's high-flying ER-2 science aircraft is looking deeper into the skies overhead the week of Aug. 13. The aircraft is flying three eight-hour missions to collect cosmic dust during the Perseids meteor shower. Samples collected during the flights provide valuable information about the origin and history of the solar system.
ER-2 No. 809, carrying Large Area Collectors mounted under both wings, flies to an altitude of more than 65,000 feet. The pilot then activates the collectors' clam shell-like doors revealing pads coated with a sticky, sterile silicone oil. The doors are closed as the aircraft descends, sealing the pads that are later sent to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for curation, preliminary characterization, and then made available to qualified scientists worldwide.
The Perseids is an annual meteor shower visible from mid-July through mid-August, primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. Although the shower is visible to the human eye at night, the aircraft is collecting cosmic debris during daytime hours.
"The collection is timed to catch the particles after they have settled into the lower stratosphere," said Mike Zolensky, a space scientist at NASA Johnson who has coordinated cosmic dust flights with these devices for more than 25 years.
NASA's ER-2s are based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. The Large Area Collectors were developed in the 1980s by NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., for Earth science research.