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When people talk about NASA, most people think of space exploration. In fact, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is also heavily involved in numerous terrestrial research areas. This includes the underwater world and coral reefs. The goal? Accurately mapping these threatened ecosystems to better understand and protect them. Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley have now developed new instruments. These were originally intended for viewing stars. Now the researchers can use it to look under the sea surface.

These hi-tech cameras mounted on drones or airplanes have been used on expeditions to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and elsewhere. The goal was to collect 3D images of the sea floor. Among other things, corals, algae and seaweed can be seen on it. However, this data alone does not reveal everything that is happening to the corals beneath the waves. So NASA is now reaching out to those interested in ocean life to try out its latest program, NeMO-Net.

NASA drones scanned the coral reefs

What is NeMO-Net and how does it help reefs?

In short, NeMO-Net is a free-to-play video game developed by NASA. In this unique video game, players identify and classify corals based on the 3D images captured by the cameras.

Players view and edit the images as they virtually travel across the ocean on their own research vessel, the Nautilus. Ultimately, each player's input will help complete a global coral map.

"NeMO-Net harnesses the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but humans," said Ved Chirayath, the project's Principal Investigator. "Anyone, even a first grader, can play this game and sort through this data to depict one of the most beautiful life forms known."

This is what the gameplay looks like on the tablet

Like your NASA research gameplay contributes

With each virtual "dive," players interact with real NASA data and learn about the different types of coral. At the same time, they mark the respective species that appear in the images. Players can then track their progress aboard their virtual research vessel. In addition, they earn badges, read the game manual and browse through the catalog of species. They can access educational videos about life on the seabed.

Your own research vessel

Players also help train NASA's Pleiades supercomputer. Through gameplay, the system learns to recognize the different corals from any image of the seabed, even those captured with less powerful instruments. As more people play NeMO-Net, the supercomputer's mapping abilities will improve. Once Pleiades learns to accurately classify coral species using the data contained within the game, the supercomputer will be able to map the world's reefs with unprecedented resolution.

Discover all coral species and sea creatures

Why it is so important to map the coral reefs

Coral reefs are among the most complex and diverse ecosystems on earth. Scientists estimate that reefs are home to as many species as tropical rainforests. They also play an important role in fighting many diseases. Numerous marine organisms have already contributed to the development of medicines used to treat HIV, cancer, etc. However, rising sea temperatures, pollution and ocean acidification pose increasing threats to reefs. Scientists are looking for more data to understand how corals are adapting to these threats. But they can only do that if they have an accurate map of all the reefs in front of them.

Want to help and try a fun video game at the same time? NeMO-Net is available free of charge from the Apple App Store. The game is currently only playable on iOS devices and Mac computers. A version for Android systems should be available shortly.

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