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Meet the 'Aquanauts' Who Research Coral Reefs in World's Only Underwater Laboratory

For the last 10 days, marine scientists and technicians, otherwise known as aquanauts, have been living almost 50 feet under water while they research ways to protect and restore the coral reef off of Key Largo in Florida.

The underwater lab, which called "Aquarius" but also goes by America's "inner space" station," is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and can hold up to six researchers at a time. The lab has almost all the comforts of home -- toilet, microwave, refrigerator, air conditioner -- so aquanauts can remain submerged for an extended length of time, according to LiveScience:

Drinking water is brought down in jugs, while food, books, clothing, electronics such as Hay's iPad, and other items come in pressurized containers "like your grandmother's pressure cooker," [marine ecologist Mark Hay of the Georgia Institute of Technology] explained.

"If we seal a container — say, a jar — on the surface to keep out the water, dive it into Aquarius and try to open it, we can't because the pressure pushing it closed is too great," he explained. "However, if we put it in a pressure cooker, seal it shut, pressurize it to the equivalent of 50 feet deep and bring it into the habitat, then it opens easily."

In terms of dining, "the staple is freeze-dried camping food," Hay explained, "Tastes fine, but very high-cholesterol and very high-sodium." This gets microwaved or mixed with hot water. "We also get some fresh fruit, and some of the staff's wives and girlfriends occasionally cook real food and send it down."

Watch this quick tour of Aquarius:

Researchers go in and out through a hole in the bottom of the cabin floor. To prevent water from flooding the school bus-size lab, the cabin is pressurized. Before returning to the surface, aquanauts spend 17 hours in the decompression chamber. After such a length of time breathing gas that is causing their bodies to absorb nitrogen, rising to the surface too quickly could cause "the bends," painful and potentially harmful bubbles.

During this most recent mission, scientists installed 32 cages over the reef and enclosed specific types of aquatic species inside. What they will monitor is which species best control seaweed; seaweed can cause damage to coral reefs.

The next research crew to visit the lab in October with be a team of NASA and international scientists. The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 15 will descend to Aquarius for a 13-day mission that will be the first to simulate a team landing on an asteroid. According to the release, the team will take advantage of weightlessness underwater to learn how to anchor a vessel to the surface of an asteroid, how to move around it and the best data collection techniques.

Interested in seeing live video from missions under the sea? Check out the feeds here.

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