Q&A: The First-Ever Expedition to Turkmenistan's "Door to Hell"

Go along with explorer George Kourounis as he becomes the first person known to venture into Turkmenistan's fiery, gas-fueled Darvaza Crater.

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Turkmenistan's Darvaza Crater—created more than 40 years ago when the ground under a Soviet drilling rig gave way—has been burning for decades.

More than four decades ago, a gaping, fiery crater opened up in the desert of northern Turkmenistan ( map), likely the result of a drilling mishap.

The Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell, still burns today, a surreal feature in an otherwise barren landscape.

Details on the origin of the sinkhole are sketchy, but the story goes that Soviet scientists set it on fire to burn off noxious gases after the ground under a drilling rig gave way. Perhaps the scientists underestimated the amount of fuel that lay below—Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world.

In November 2013, explorer and storm chaser George Kourounis, on an expedition funded partly by National Geographic and also supported by the travel company Kensington Tours, set out to be the first person to plumb the depths of the crater, which is 225 feet (69 meters) wide and 99 feet (30 meters) deep. (Related: "Diver 'Vanishes' in Portal to Maya Underworld.")

At the bottom he collected soil samples, hoping to learn whether life can survive in such harsh conditions—and perhaps shedding light on whether life could survive similar conditions elsewhere in the universe.

His harrowing plunge is featured on the National Geographic Channel series Die Trying , which airs tonight, July 16, at 10 p.m. EDT. Kourounis, who's based in Toronto, talked with National Geographic about his experience in Turkmenistan.

Tell me how this project got started.

The place has always fascinated me. The story behind how...

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