for National Geographic News
Next month Nathalie Cabrol and colleagues hope to slip into drysuits, don masks, and dive, without the aid of an oxygen tank, into a lake tucked into the crater of a 19,734-foot (6,014-meter) tall volcano on the border between Chile and Bolivia.
If they succeed, they will tie a world record for the highest "free dive."
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"I'm less interested by the record than by what we will be wearing," said Cabrol, a planetary scientist with the NASA Ames Research Center and SETI Institute in Moffett Field, California.
The researchers will be wearing CPODS, specially-outfitted suits that will record their vital signs and transmit them, in real time, back to NASA Ames.
"It's the first time we've done real-time," said John Hines, manager of the astrobionics group at NASA Ames, which is developing the technology.
The suits, also known as LifeGuard devices, are prototypes of technology that the space agency is developing to monitor astronauts' health as they float around the International Space Station and, eventually, explore distant planets.
When the opportunity arose to field test the real-time transmission feature of the devices on researchers probing a lake in an ancient, Mars-like environment, Hines and his group jumped at the chance.
"I'm pretty confident everything should go OK, but we did accelerate the development process," said Hines.
Cabrol and her international team of scientists depart for the Licancabur Volcano today (October 27, 2003), where they will spend the next five weeks studying life and designing strategies for exploring distant planets in one of Earth's most extremeand Mars-likeenvironments.
"We are trying to understand the environment and life in a very similar environment to ancient Martian lakes," she said.
The seemingly lifeless borderland between Bolivia and Chile is bombarded by ultraviolet radiation and has half the oxygen and atmospheric pressure as sea level. And it's chilly: Temperatures range from 40 to 27 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 3 degrees Celsius).
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