NASA's COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) has landed in Australia to begin a two-month study of the largest reef ecosystem in the world, the Great Barrier Reef.

Mission objectives were relayed to media personnel present at the briefing in North Queensland's Cairns Airport by both NASA scientists and their collaborators from Australia, as well as what are expected to be learned as the researchers take a closer look at the Great Barrier Reef.

According to Eric Hochberg, principal CORAL investigator, the mission provides the clearest and most extensive image so far of the condition of a significant portion of coral reefs around the world.

"This new understanding of reef condition and function will allow scientists to better predict the future of this global ecosystem," he said, adding policymakers will also receive better information that will help them in crafting decisions involving resource management.

The Mission

CORAL is a three-year mission that uses aerial surveys and in-water validation activities to gather data. With the mission generating a uniform set of data from a large reef sample in the Pacific Ocean, researchers will be able to utilize these data in identifying trends in the conditions of coral reefs and environmental and biological factors that affect them.

In Australia, six sections in the Great Barrier Reef will be surveyed, from the north's Torres Strait to the south's Capricorn-Bunker Group. There will be two bases for in-water validation activities: Lizard Island Research Station in the north and the Heron Island Research Station in the south.

Aside from those from NASA and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, researchers from the University of Queensland and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization will also be doing additional in-water validation activities.

For the aerial surveys, CORAL will be using the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Literally gazing through the surface of the ocean, PRISM will create high-resolution images of light reflected in certain electromagnetic spectrum regions relevant to coral reef research. Mounted on a modified Tempus Solutions Gulfstream IV aircraft, the spectrometer will conduct aerial surveys from 28,000 feet in the air.

The Great Barrier Reef: An Australian Treasure

Situated off Queensland's Coral Sea, the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 900 islands and over 2,900 separate reefs, stretching over 1,400 miles long and covering some 133,000 square miles of area. It is also home to about 400 coral species. Because of the reef's significance, it attracts 2 million visitors every year, resulting in fishing and tourism industries generating billions each year. Ironically, human activity is one of the major threats the Great Barrier Reef is facing.

According to a study published in June in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, the Great Barrier Reef has deteriorated so much that it is being labeled as a last chance tourist destination, a place people travel to before it is gone.

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