UPPER WEST SIDE — The American Museum of Natural History is showing off what looks like a massive space suit for lunar missions — but is actually the world's only "Exosuit," the next generation in underwater exploration gear.
The suit, on view from Feb. 27 through March 5 in the Hall of Ocean Life, is a hulking 530-pound contraption that lets ocean explorers go to greater depths without experiencing any pressure or temperature changes, a team of scientists explained at its unveiling Thursday.
At a depth of 1,000 feet, the wearer of the $600,000 metal suit can get closer to new specimens and handle them carefully — rather than viewing them from an encased pod, as is typical for those depths, the scientists said.
"With this suit, we want to get down deeper and see these fish alive," rather than bringing them to the surface, where they usually die, said musuem marine biologist John Sparks.
In the deep sea, fish and invertebrates send light signals to each other using bioluminescence, which scientists want to better understand and investigate for its applications in the study of medicine, Sparks said.
The suit and a companion remotely operated vehicle, called the DeepReef-ROV, can also allow scientists to study deep coral reefs for hours at a time, said David Gruber, a Baruch College marine biologist.
Through the use of the suit's hands, which Gruber said function a little like pliers, scientists can take samples, as well as handle and photograph sea creatures.
In July, the Exosuit, designed and constructed by Nuytco Research Ltd. in Vancouver, will go on its first mission 100 feet off the coast of Rhode Island.
"We feel like we're walking on the moon," Gruber said.
Michael Lombardi, a diving expert at the museum, will take the plunge, diving down 1,000 feet in about 15 minutes but still experiencing the pressure and conditions of the surface from within the suit, he said.
The team's goal on the July Stephen J. Barlow Bluewater Expedition is "very pure exploration," Lombardi explained.
"The success of this mission is that we come home with more questions," he said.