More than four decades ago, a deep, flaming crater opened up in the desert of northern Turkmenistan, likely the result of a drilling mishap.
The Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell, still burns today, a bizarre feature in an otherwise barren landscape.
So how did this fiery inferno end up in a desert in Turkmenistan?
Details on the origin of the sinkhole are sketchy, but it’s said that Soviet scientists set it on fire to burn off noxious gases when the ground under a drilling rig gave way.
It was only meant to burn for a few weeks, but it seems scientists underestimated the amount of natural gas reserves that lay below. In fact, we still don’t know just how much as is feeding the 69 metres by 30 metres crater.
On an expedition partly funded by National Geographic, explorer George Kourounis and his team of climbing experts and scientists set out to tackle one of the world's most dangerous scientific expeditions to date: a descent into the Darvaza crater.
Kourounis at the crater’s edge [Image: National Geographic Creative]
When you first set eyes on the crater, it's like something out of a science fiction film. You've got this vast, sprawling desert with almost nothing there, and then there's this gaping, burning pit,” Kourounis said.
“You get this blast of heat that is so intense that you can't even look straight into the wind. Here I am thinking, Okay, maybe I've bitten off a bit more than I can chew.”
Kourounis descends into the crater [Image: National Geographic Creative]
Kourounis descended into the crater via a specially designed rope system, walked on its burning floor and collected soil samples that could help us look in the right places for life on other planets.
“We did find some bacteria living at the bottom that are very comfortable living in those high temperatures, and the most important thing was that they were not found in any of the surrounding soil outside of the crater.”
Outside of our solar system, there are planets that do resemble the conditions inside this pit, and [knowing that] can help us expand the number of places where we can confidently start looking for life outside of our solar system.