The U.S. Geological Survey is searching for commercially important minerals in southeastern Missouri. But the researchers won't be using any shovels or pick-axes: All the data will be collected from a small, low-flying plane.
The aerial survey is part of an on-going project to study the geology of the St. Francois Mountains.
USGS geophysicist Anne McCafferty said the plane will have a sensor, called a magnetometer, that can detect deposits of iron, copper and gold, along with what are known as "rare earth elements."
"The rare earth elements are important because they're used in a lot of high technology," McAfferty said. That includes cell phones, solar panels, wind turbines and hybrid cars.
The magnetometer can find minerals hundreds of meters below the surface, by sensing magnetic fields. "Iron-oxide, copper, gold deposits are very magnetic," McCafferty said. "There's a lot of a mineral called magnetite in these deposits, and the sensors on board this aircraft pick up small changes in the amounts of magnetite within the rocks."
Weather permitting, the aerial survey will start next week. Federal researchers will use the data to produce maps showing the locations and depths of mineral deposits in the St. Francois Mountains.
The USGS will post the results on its website sometime this spring.
Southeast Missouri has a long history of mining for minerals including iron and lead, and the new data could be used by the mineral industry to develop new mining operations in the future.
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience