Up in the Air to Look Deep Underground

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Look, in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s...underground mineral research?

Helicopter in flight with the VTEM Plus AEM system from Geotech Ltd. attached underneath.
Image of the VTEM Plus AEM system from Geotech Ltd. in flight. A similar system will be flown during the upcoming USGS AEM study.
(Public domain.)

Yes, 10,000 feet in the air might not be where you’d expect to find underground mineral research being done, but believe it or not, this is an important part of figuring out where mineral deposits might be found.

When we’re up there, we’re looking for all kinds of things that help us determine what kinds of minerals might exist in an area. One thing we often measure for is the magnetic properties of the rock layers we fly over.

You’ve probably heard that some metals are magnetic, like iron or nickel. But another, very valuable set of minerals can be found by looking for magnetism: rare-earth elements. Most of our modern electronics depend on rare-earth elements, and the United States imports 100% of the amount we use each year, so finding where they might be in the United States is an important goal of ours. We’ve conducted these flights over the Upper Midwest, Iowa, Missouri and even Upstate New York.

Small prop plane sitting on runway. Snow covered mountains in the background. Photo credit: Goldak Airborne Survey
The airplane that will be doing overflights in Essex and Clinton Counties, flying a grid pattern at low altitude for a few weeks in December. 
(Public domain.)

Another tool we use to study the mineral potential of the country is hyperspectral imaging. Basically, we use lasers to create a map of different signatures, and then compare them to the signatures for certain rock types that contain valuable minerals. The primary places USGS has used hyperspectral imaging to study minerals are Alaska and Afghanistan.

So if you look up one day and see a small plane flying back and forth along a grid, or see a helicopter dragging a couple of hula hoops around, check your local paper to see if it’s us seeing what kind of minerals might be in your backyard!