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Space-age scuba suit on display at NYC museum

A one-of-a-kind Exosuit, a next-generation atmospheric diving system

A one-of-a-kind Exosuit, a next-generation atmospheric diving system capable of taking a diver down 1,000 feet at surface pressure, on temporary display at the American Museum of Natural History Feb. 27, 2014 in New York. Credit: Getty Images / Stan Honda

A space-age scuba suit that enables scientists to dive and stay at depths of up to 1,000 feet will have its first test this summer in the ocean off Nantucket.

Known as the Exosuit, it is on exhibit until Wednesday at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Scientists say it will take ocean exploration to a new level, going beyond the mini-submarines that have been used to explore deep, unchartered waters to collect marine life from its natural habitat.

The 530-pound aluminum alloy suit has rotary joints at the hands, elbows and knees, and a bubble helmet mask, and provides a 50-hour life-support system with communications with a surface vessel via a fiber-optic cable. The suit's handgrips enable scientists to touch and grab marine life.

"For the first time, I will be able to get out into the water and experience [deep sea] marine life and actually touch it," said John Sparks, 50, a curator at the museum's ichthyology department. Sparks, said the suit's foot power thrusters will help maneuver him through ocean waters.

The suit, the only one of its kind, was commissioned by J.F. White, a Boston-based contractor that does underwater engineering and construction projects. It costs $1.2 million to build and operate the suit, which may be also used for underwater infrastructure repair.

Scientists this summer will test an Exosuit off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, where waters plummet 10,000 feet. "This is blue water. There is no bottom," said Michael Lombardi, 31, the museum's diving safety officer and marine biologist, who will also test the suit.

"We are at a crossroads of diving technology," Lombardi said. "This is a form-fitting space suit. You are in a shell with all this technology that works with you."

Scientists this summer hope to gather a new jellyfish species with a luminescence they'd like to reproduce for medical research to track cell movements in the human body.

Using Exosuit to collect these bioluminescent species in their natural environment will allow scientists to freeze them for research at the lab.

"Our access to these deeper waters [up until now] has restricted our ability to investigate the behavior and flashing patterns," Sparks said. Before Exosuit, divers could see them only when they emerged in shallow waters, when their luminescence is not as intense.

Now with Exosuit, scientists can study them for hours watching and documenting their lighting patterns with video and high-definition images, all in their environment, Sparks said.

The suit will enable divers to go where no human has gone before. "That is a very humbling experience," Lombardi said.

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