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Michael Lombardi in the Exosuit. Photo by Jim Clark/AMNH.
Michael Lombardi in the Exosuit. Photo by Jim Clark/AMNH.

The High-Tech Exosuit That Takes Divers to 1000 Feet

Michael Lombardi in the Exosuit. Photo by Jim Clark/AMNH.
Michael Lombardi in the Exosuit. Photo by Jim Clark/AMNH.

It looks like something you'd wear to visit the Moon or Mars, but the Exosuit—on display at the American Museum of Natural History's Milstein Hall of Ocean Life through March 5—is actually built to explore another place that's largely alien to humans: the ocean. The atmospheric diving system (ADS) is capable of taking a diver down to 1000 feet while keeping him at surface pressure. A hybridization of wet diving and submersibles, "it allows the human form to be embedded in an environment," says Michael Lombardi, AMNH's Dive Safety Officer and the project coordinator of the Stephen J. Barlow Expedition, which will take the suit out this July on its first mission to explore an area 100 miles of the coast of New England known as The Canyons. "People have dived to these depths just to say that they've done it," Lombardi says. "That's very different than doing it for work, which is what we're doing."


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At 6.5 feet tall, the hard-metal suit is owned by the J.F. White Contracting Company and was designed and built by Nuytco Research Ltd.; it's currently the only Exosuit in existence. The suit—which can be modified to fit divers from 5'6" to 6'4" tall—is driven with four 1.6 horsepower foot-controlled thrusters and has 18 rotary joints in the arms and legs, which allow for a wide range of movement and give the diver the ability to use special accessories. Though it weighs between 500 and 600 pounds on land, it's nearly neutrally buoyant in the ocean.

On its July expedition to The Canyons (where the continental shelf drops off to depths of more than 10,000 feet), the suit will allow a team of scientists—including ichthyologists, neurologists, and marine biologists—to conduct studies in the mesopelagic (or mid-water) zone, where they can find a number of animals that have only been studied using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) or after being caught in trawl nets. The mission will take place at night, because animals make a vertical migration from the depths to shallower water at that time. The team is looking to study creatures that exhibit bioluminescence (generating light using a chemical reaction). The discovery of green fluorescent protein in the '60s allowed scientists to reveal the inner working of cells in a non-invasive way, according to Vincent Pieribone, Yale University School of Medicine Professor and Chief Scientist of the Stephen J. Barlow Bluewater Expedition; identifying new bioluminescent proteins could potentially help in other areas of biomedical research, including cancer cell tagging.

Working in tandem with an ROV, the suit will be equipped with suction tools and a special containment vessel (still in development) that will allow the operator to gently capture fish and invertebrates and place them in front of the ROV's cameras to be photographed in high resolution. The suit is so dexterous that a user can pick up a dime off the floor of a pool—and it has to be, when working in areas where there might be 9000 feet of water below it. "If you drop something," Pieribone says, "that's a long way down." The Exosuit allows a diver to work for 4 to 5 hours on site, and is built to have 50 hours of emergency support.

The back of the Exosuit, which shows the life support system. Photo courtesy AMNH/Michael Lombardi.

The suit itself cost approximately $600,000 to make; add in instrumentation, and the total cost is somewhere around $1.3 million. In development for about 15 years, Lombardi said, the Exosuit is a "quantum leap forward" from the Newtsuit of the 1980s (which was also manufactured by Nuytco and is still used today).

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Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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