NASA maps minerals and ecosystem function in regions of the southwestern United States

NASA maps minerals and ecosystem function in regions of the southwestern United States

In September 2023, NASA aircraft began supporting efforts to find and map important mineral deposits in the western regions of the United States. Identifying these minerals – which are often used in everyday products such as laptops and cell phones – could help improve environmental processes for mining and geological activities, enhance national security and boost the economy. This project will continue until fall 2026.

In collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a high-altitude ER-2 aircraft based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, supported GEMx, the Geological Earth Mapping Experiment. The expedition also includes NASA’s Gulfstream V aircraft and a diverse team of engineers, pilots and scientists from NASA, the USGS and the University of Arizona.

“For this mission, we are flying at an altitude of about 65,000 feet to acquire broad swaths of geophysical data with each flyby,” said Kevin Reith, NASA’s deputy GEMx program manager. The devices fly at a higher altitude than previous airborne devices to collect data over a wider area, yet the images collected contain finer detail than a satellite view. “Thanks to the high-altitude flight capability, we can cover such a large area.”

The researchers installed instruments on the ER-2 and Gulfstream V to collect measurements over arid and semi-arid regions of the country, including parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. These instruments include NASA’s AVIRIS (Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer), HyTes (Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer), and MASTER (MODIS/ASTER Airborne Simulator).

These tools collect hyperspectral images, or images that use color to convey geophysical complexities behind seemingly simple or monochromatic surfaces. The visual data produced by these optical sensors indicates the composition of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and the changes that occur in them.

“This mission and its data and data products can help the public along with local, state, tribal and federal agencies make effective decisions regarding the management of natural resource deposits including critical mineral resources,” said Dean Reilly, a GEMx collaborator. A project from the University of Arizona.

“The United States depends on a reliable supply of terrestrial materials to support its economy and national security,” said Raymond Kokali, a research geophysicist at the USGS. “These materials are considered important minerals because disruption to their supply would have significant negative impacts. Undiscovered deposits of some of these important and strategic minerals almost certainly exist in the United States, but modern geophysical data are needed to increase our knowledge of these resources.”

Up-to-date geophysical data is exactly what the GEMx project buys. This means data that identifies not only the components of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere, but also how those components will change over time between 2023 and 2026.

“If this mission can successfully identify critical minerals at mineable sites in the United States, we may be less dependent on foreign entities for these critical minerals,” Reith said.

Learn more about GEMx

Learn more about the ER-2 aircraft

Learn more about NASA’s Armstrong Research Center

(Tags for translation)Armstrong Flight Research Center

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