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.

Once the mission is complete, the doors on the samplers are closed and the ER-2 descends through the atmosphere, making its way back to Edwards Air Force Base in southern California where the Dryden Flight Research Center is located. The samples are sent to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where they are identified and cataloged. Perseid samples collected by the ER-2 are then made available to scientists around the world.

The ER-2 Perseid flights have been taking place since the 1980s. The NASA aircraft have also participated in a wide range of scientific missions including a wide range of remote sensing and mapping projects around the world, hurricane research and other atmospheric sampling programs including some of the original ozone depletion measurements over Antarctica.

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