NASA's new COral Reef Airborne Laboratory, or CORAL, will kick off its data-gathering phase with an operational readiness test on Oahu, Hawaii, from June 6 to 16. Over the next year, CORAL will visit representative reefs from Hawaii to Australia to collect detailed measurements needed for a better fundamental understanding of these valuable ecosystems. Here are a few of the many things that make CORAL an exciting science investigation.

Coral or reef? While many people use “coral” and “reef” interchangeably, there is an important difference. A single coral polyp—comprised of the coral animal, its symbiotic algae and calcium carbonate skeleton—is usually very small, less than 0.5” across. Unlike many animals, coral is colonial, which means that many polyps grow together resulting in a larger structure. Most corals that you see in aquaria are, in fact, colonies. A coral reef, on the other hand, is an entire ecosystem that includes not just the individual polyps and their colonies, but also other living (e.g., fish, worms, invertebrates, algae) and nonliving (e.g., sunlight, sand, water) components. Scientists have a pretty good understanding of coral biology (that is, how the individual polyp or even the colony functions), but much less of an understanding about how the various parts act individually and collectively to form an ecosystem.

SCUBA diving for science. For decades SCUBA diving has been the gold standard for conducting reef research, allowing scientists to study everything from coral reproduction to the complex relationships between coral and other organisms. However, SCUBA diving as a method of understanding entire ecosystems leaves a lot to be desired: it is time consuming, labor intensive and costly. As a result, even with all the dives logged on reefs each year, only a small fraction of the world’s reefs have been visited, never mind rigorously studied. CORAL represents a huge step forward in research capacity, as it will use remote sensing data to survey entire reef ecosystems across the Pacific.

Remote sensing? To do this, CORAL is using a new NASA airborne instrument designed specifically to observe coastal environments. The Portable Remote Imaging SpectroMeter (PRISM) will be flown in a Gulfstream IV airplane, collecting large swaths of data that will allow scientists to distinguish between coral, algae and sand without having to go underwater in each location. In addition to saving valuable time, this represents a method of collecting data in a uniform method rather than patching together multiple data sets collected by multiple people, all using different techniques.

The end result. By focusing research efforts on entire reef ecosystems, CORAL scientists will help answer global-scale questions about how reef ecosystems are changing due to the combined effects of climate change and human activities. Fundamentally, CORAL data will provide scientists with state-of-the-art insight into biological, physical and chemical processes that shape and impact reef ecosystems.