Although NASA primarily looks outside our planet's atmosphere to observe and learn about the mysteries of outer space, the world's oceans, which cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface, remain largely unexplored.

NASA's latest project, the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL), looks to turn the space agency's exploration inwards - into the world's oceans - in a massive effort to help save coral reefs. CORAL will be a three-year-long field expedition into the oceans to survey all of the Earth's coral reefs using NASA's high-tech space equipment.

Under CORAL, the reefs will be surveyed in greater detail than ever before. Until now, coral reef studies were largely conducted by no more than scuba divers with tape measures, according to Eric Hochberg who was named CORAL's principal investigator.

According to studies, the Earth's oceans have been getting warmer. In addition, pollution, acidification and illegal fishing practices have been threatening and destroying coral reefs.

In October 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a global coral bleaching event, the third of its kind, wherein stressed corals turn white as they expel algae. These corals eventually die if not given time to recuperate.

Unfortunately, even with all these threats, only a handful of the coral reefs around the world have actually been studied. NASA hopes to change that using its equipment, which will allow scientists to study and document coral reefs to a scale without precedent.

CORAL will deploy the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM), an airborne instrument that will take measurements of entire coral reefs in Florida, Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, Palau and Australia. Hochberg and his team will be analyzing the reefs' conditions and how they are affected by the current environmental conditions and threats, which include the physical, chemical, as well as human factors that affect reef health and growth.

“We know reefs are in trouble. We’ve seen the reefs of Jamaica and Florida deteriorate and we think we know what is happening there. However, reefs respond in complex ways to environmental stresses such as sea level change, rising ocean temperatures and pollution," said Hochberg.

Hochberg explained that the current available data, which were not gathered at the right density and spatial scale, do not allow them to develop a quantitative and comprehensive model that accurately explains how and why reefs undergo changes in response to environmental factors.

"We need accurate data across many whole reef ecosystems to do that," Hochberg added.

The team is hopeful that after the completion of data collection in 2017, they will be able to better predict how reefs react to environmental changes using statistics based on hard numbers rather than “ideas.”

Hochberg also shared that he hopes reefs will be monitored by satellites which can report data on a massive scale as changes occur.

Photo: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | Flickr 

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