At the beginning of this month, NASA began a mission to explore a mysterious frontier, a world we are just barely beginning to understand. No, we’re not talking about Mars, or anywhere beyond our planet. NASA is exploring the Great Barrier Reef. 

Our planet is changing fast, and coral reefs are among the biggest casualties. It's been estimated that as much as half of the world's reefs are mostly or completely degraded due to widely varying dangers, including climate change, pollution and other human activities. As reefs are stressed by such conditions, they struggle to rebound from damage, and as they degrade, thousands of species that rely upon them lose their homes.

But reef data is sparse. We know surprisingly little about how coral reefs are doing around the world. That's why NASA has created the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory mission (get it? CORAL!). Working alongside the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has equipped a special aircraft with a high-resolution imaging instrument called PRISM, which it will use to examine coral reefs from 28,000 feet above the ocean's surface, starting with the largest reef system in the world: Great Barrier Reef.

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The Gulfstream III carrying NASA's PRISM instrument being readied for science flights from Cairns, Australia. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/BIOS.

"The Great Barrier Reef is Australia's national treasure, so having a broader understanding of its condition and what's threatening it will help us better understand how we can protect it," said Tim Malthus, research leader of CSIRO's Coastal Monitoring, Modeling and Informatics Group in Canberra, Australia. Stretching for 2,300km (1,400 miles), this reef system is home to hundreds of species of coral – and like so many other reef systems, it's struggling.

CORAL is a three-year mission with two major objectives. First, it will investigate the condition of coral reefs, examining how reefs are structured, how the coral is growing, and how well the coral and algae are able to support diverse ecosystems. Second, the mission will examine how reefs respond to external conditions such as pollution, overfishing and changing water temperature. Along the way, the data will also be used to generate new maps, which will be essential for future coral studies. 

"Right now, the state of the art for collecting coral reef data is scuba diving with a tape measure," said CORAL Principal Investigator Eric Hochberg. In a recent press release, he added, "Very little of Earth's reef area has been directly surveyed." The CORAL mission will combine aerial surveys with in-the-water comparisons as needed.

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Bleached and stressed coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/BIOS

CORAL will be cruising around Australia until the end of October. After that, it will move on to the Hawaiian Islands, the Mariana Islands and finally the reefs of Palau. By next summer, the mission will have collected data on a variety of reef types suffering from a whole host of different threats. This should give conservationists a lot to work with in their ongoing fight to save the world from a sad, reef-less future.

For those of us worried about the continued health of coral reefs, this endeavor is a huge step in the right direction. But Hochberg has his sights set even higher, saying, "Ideally, in a decade or so we'll have a satellite that can frequently and accurately observe all of the world's reefs, and we can push the science and, most importantly, our understanding even further."


Top header image: WWF Deutschland, Flickr