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Explorer Uses Drones to Peer Inside a Volcano

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A man wearing a protective suit descends the rim of the lava lake in Marum, Vanuatu.
A man wearing a protective suit descends the rim of the lava lake in Marum, Vanuatu.Conor Toumarkine

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Wearing a custom-built, fire-retardant spacesuit with a gold-plated face shield, Sam Cossman stepped to the lip of a lava-spewing, 2,000-degree volcano in the South Pacific, two drones mounted with Go-Pro cameras hovering above the molten lake. The result was an unprecedented look into Earth's origins. Or, as Cossman said in his narration of a National Geographic video about his adventure, "It's a glimpse into the center of the Earth. It's like listening to the heartbeat of the planet."

Though the drones perished, Cossman, 33, and his team of videographers, drone operators and scientists captured thousands of high-definition images of the 1,000-yard-wide Marum Crater on the archipelago country of Vanuatu. The footage is being used to stitch together a 3-D map of the volcano. And the data they collected, from the land and air, will not only help scientists understand volcanic activity, but also the conditions that make life possible in extreme environments on Earth — and, possibly, other planets.

It was Cossman's second journey to the volcano. In the first, last August, he was scouting locations for an adventure-booking company he'd developed. He filmed the initial visit on a GoPro, and the video he posted on YouTube went viral. The reaction, including interest from National Geographic, inspired him to quit his day job at a tech start-up in Silicon Valley and return with a crew of filmmakers and scientists with plans to build a new career as an explorer, educator and creator of branded content. He recruited a team and got a sponsor, Kenu.com, a mobile photography company.

Cossman returned to the volcano in December, and this time, outfitted with the protective suit, got so close to the boiling lake that toxic gases melted his face shield and respirator.

With the project's success, Cossman hopes to start his own company and conduct similar projects in other extreme environments. "There's not that many places in the world where you can say, 'I’m among a few people on the planet who has ever seen this,'" Cossman told NBC News. "It's an honor, it's humbling and if you have this explorer trait. It's something you thrive on."

— Jon Schuppe

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