NASA astronauts are restoring Florida Keys reefs while training for deep space missions

Later this month, astronauts and crew members from NASA and the European Space Agency will begin an expedition that seeks to both train the crews for space and restore some of the state's damaged coral reefs.

In an underwater habitat near the Florida Keys, the crews will build and install a series of underwater coral tree nurseries as part of a group collaboration with the Coral Restoration Foundation and Florida International University. The expedition – the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 23, or NEEMO 23 – is expected to take 10 days, according to a press release from Coral Restoration Foundation.

The coral tree structures developed by the Coral Restoration Foundation are used worldwide as a means of growing large amounts of coral at a fast and efficient pace, the release notes.

"The nurseries that are being set up as part of NEEMO 23 are being established in environments that are very different from the nurseries that we have already," Alice Grainger, communications director at the Coral Restoration Foundation, tells Orlando Weekly.

Grainger adds: "The water is deeper, there are different communities of fish and marine life, and the light conditions are different."

She says the project is important because it provides an opportunity to better understand how different genotypes cope in varying environments.

The process will help to rehabilitate the underwater ecosystem, as well as further train the astronauts to work – to use tools and vehicles to compete different tasks – in an environment similar to deep space.

After the project is complete, the coral tree nursery will be maintained by FIU, who will use the coral to study nutrient and herbivory rates.

"This is all important data that will guide our restoration work, ensuring that we have the best possible chance of saving our disappearing coral reefs," says Amelia Moura, the space program manager at the Coral Restoration Foundation, in the release.

For more information on the Coral Restoration Foundation, click here.

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