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NASA is using two ER-2 Airborne Science aircraft as flying laboratories. The aircraft, based at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., collect information about our surroundings, including Earth resources, celestial observations, atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, and oceanic processes. The aircraft also are used for electronic sensor research and development, satellite calibration and satellite data validation.
In 1981, NASA acquired its first ER-2 aircraft. The agency obtained a second ER-2 in 1989. These airplanes replaced two Lockheed U-2s, which NASA has used to collect scientific data since 1971. The U-2s, and later ER-2s, were based at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., until 1997. That year the ER-2 aircraft and operations were moved to Dryden.
Since the inaugural flight of this program on Aug. 31, 1971, NASA U-2 and ER-2 aircraft have flown more than 4,000 data missions and test flights in support of scientific research conducted by scientists from NASA, other federal agencies, states, universities and the private sector.
The ER-2 is a versatile aircraft well-suited to perform multiple tasks. The aircraft has four large pressurized experiment compartments and a high-capacity AC/DC electrical system, permitting it to carry a variety of payloads on a single mission. The modular design of the aircraft permits rapid installation or removal of payloads to meet changing mission requirements.
For most missions the aircraft operate at altitudes between 65,000 feet and 70,000 feet where instruments they carry acquire data above 95 percent of the Earth's surface. The ER-2 provides a stable platform for Earth imagery, atmospheric research and electronic sensor development. Because the aircraft can fly so high, its sensors "mimic" sensors carried aboard orbiting satellites.
Depending on aircraft weight, the ER-2 reaches a cruise altitude of 65,000 feet within 20 minutes. Typical cruise speed is 410 knots. The range for a normal six-hour mission is 2,200 nautical miles (4,070 kilometers), which yields five hours of data collection at high altitude. The aircraft is capable of longer missions of up to eight hours and ranges of 3,000 nautical miles (5,500 kilometers). The ER-2 can carry a maximum payload of 2,600 pounds (1,179 kilograms) distributed in the equipment bay, nose area and wing pods.
In 1991, NASA launched a comprehensive program to study the Earth as an environment system, now called the Earth Science Enterprise. By using satellites and other tools like the ER-2 to intensively study the Earth, NASA hopes to expand human understanding of how natural processes affect people and how people might be affecting them. Such studies will yield improved weather forecasts, tools for managing agriculture and forests, information for fishermen and local planners, and eventually, the ability to predict how the climate will change in the future.
Other atmospheric experiments provide more information about clouds and radiation that will help improve climate models. These experiments coordinated satellite, airborne and surface observations to investigate how cloud formation affects global temperatures.