This winter in Hawaii, a NASA field campaign tested the potential for a satellite that would monitor ecosystem changes and natural hazards.
The future satellite mission called the Hyperspectral Infrared Imager(HyspIRI) is still in the conceptual design phase, but it is expected to study the world's ecosystems and provide critical information on natural disasters such as volcanoes, wildfires and drought.
If NASA gives the project a green light, this satellite could dramatically boost our ability to monitor the health of coral reefs.
The urgency for better observation of coral reefs is rising alongside the steady warming of our planet.
"Reefs are threatened by bleaching due to rising sea surface temperatures as well as, to some degree, by increasing acidification of ocean waters," said Woody Turner of NASA Headquarters in Washington, the program scientist for the recent Hawaii study.
"On top of that, since they're coastal ecosystems, they are also subject to sediment and other effluents running offshore. We have an urgent need to get a handle now on how reefs are changing."
Coral reefs are difficult to survey and monitor because they are spread across thousands of square miles of ocean. Satellites and aircrafts provide a bird's-eye view that is perfect for keeping tabs on these ecosystems.
In order to test the potential for this satellite, HyspIRI Hawaii employed a high altitude ER-2 aircraft from NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center.
The ER-2 is able to fly at approximately 60,000 feet, making it the next best thing to a satellite.
On board the aicraft were an Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) and an Airborne Simulator (MASTER).
Together, these two technologies are quite the team. AVIRIS identifies, measures, and monitors Earth's surface and atmosphere, while MASTER observes geologic and other Earth surface properties.
Even though NASA still hasn't made a decision about the future of the HyspIRI satellite, the collective data from the field campaign has already proved useful.
NASA reports that six, different coral reef-related projects are using imagery that AVIRIS and MASTER collected in Hawaii.
Here's hoping the satellite mission is given a big thumbs up.
The mission was recommended in the 2007 National Research Council Decadal Survey by NASA, NOAA, and USGS.