The PRISM instrument at JPL, undergoing testing in preparation for its use in the CORAL campaign

The PRISM instrument at JPL, undergoing testing in preparation for its use in the CORAL campaign by (left to right) CORAL systems engineer Ernesto Diaz, sensor technician Luis Rios and systems engineer Michael Eastwood. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read more at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A coastal scene with deep blue seas and a coral reef is beautiful to look at, but if you try to record the scene with a camera or a scientific instrument, the results are almost always disappointing. Most cameras can't "see" underwater objects in such scenes because they're so dim and wash out the glaring seashore. These problems don't just ruin vacation photos. They're a serious hindrance for scientists who need images of the coastline to study how these ecosystems are being affected by climate change, development and other hazards.

To the rescue: the new Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer, created at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. PRISM is an airborne instrument designed to observe hard-to-see coastal water phenomena. In NASA's upcoming Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) field experiment, PRISM will observe entire reef ecosystems in more of the world's reef area - hundreds of times more -- than has ever been observed before.

"Coastal ocean science has specific requirements that had not been met with other instruments" when PRISM was initially proposed, said Pantazis Mouroulis of JPL, who designed the instrument. "At that time, it was not even known whether anyone could design an instrument with those characteristics. We had to devise new techniques for assembling and aligning the instrument, and even new technologies for the components."

With devastating coral bleaching taking place around the world, a sensor that can collect a detailed, uniform, large-scale dataset on coral reefs could hardly be more timely. "The value of doing this investigation right now is unimaginable because of the speed at which the environment is changing, and PRISM is the perfect instrument at the perfect time," said JPL's David Thompson, who with Bo-Cai Gao, Zhongping Lee and the CORAL science team is designing a computer model to use with PRISM's measurements for CORAL. "It's such a sensitive instrument -- beyond anything I've worked with before."

Read more at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.