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Philae has landed

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission has soft-landed its Philae probe on a comet, the first time in history that such an extraordinary feat has been achieved.

After a tense wait during the seven-hour descent to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the signal confirming the successful touchdown arrived on Earth at 16:03 GMT on November 12.

The confirmation was relayed via the Rosetta orbiter to Earth and picked up simultaneously by ESA’s ground station in Malargüe, Argentina and NASA’s station in Madrid, Spain. The signal was immediately confirmed at ESA’s Space Operations Centre, ESOC, in Darmstadt, and DLR’s Lander Control Centre in Cologne, both in Germany.

The first data from the lander’s instruments were transmitted to the Philae Science, Operations and Navigation Centre at France’s CNES space agency in Toulouse.

“Our ambitious Rosetta mission has secured a place in the history books: not only is it the first to rendezvous with and orbit a comet, but it is now also the first to deliver a lander to a comet’s surface,” noted Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

“With Rosetta we are opening a door to the origin of planet Earth and fostering a better understanding of our future. ESA and its Rosetta mission partners have achieved something extraordinary today.”

Philae, as seen from the Rosetta parent craft, descending to the comet.

Philae, as seen from the Rosetta parent craft, descending to the comet.

A game-changer

“After more than 10 years travelling through space, we’re now making the best ever scientific analysis of one of the oldest remnants of our Solar System,” said Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

“Decades of preparation have paved the way for today’s success, ensuring that Rosetta continues to be a game-changer in cometary science and space exploration.”

“We are extremely relieved to be safely on the surface of the comet, especially given the extra challenges that we faced with the health of the lander,” said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at the DLR German Aerospace Centre.

“In the next hours we’ll learn exactly where and how we’ve landed, and we’ll start getting as much science as we can from the surface of this fascinating world.”

Rosetta was launched on 2 March 2004 and travelled 6.4 billion kilometres through the Solar System before arriving at the comet on 6 August 2014.

“Rosetta’s journey has been a continuous operational challenge, requiring an innovative approach, precision and long experience,” said Thomas Reiter, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations.

“This success is testimony to the outstanding teamwork and the unique know-how in operating spacecraft acquired at the European Space Agency over the decades.”

510 million kilometres from Earth

The landing site, named Agilkia and located on the head of the bizarre double-lobed object, was chosen just six weeks after arrival based on images and data collected at distances of 30–100 km from the comet.

Those first images soon revealed the comet as a world littered with boulders, towering cliffs and daunting precipices and pits, with jets of gas and dust streaming from the surface.

Following a period spent at 10 km to allow further close-up study of the chosen landing site, Rosetta moved onto a more distant trajectory to prepare for Philae’s deployment.

Philae's first view from the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. One of the lander’s three feet can be seen in the foreground. The image is a two-image mosaic.

Philae’s first view from the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. One of the lander’s three feet can be seen in the foreground. The image is a two-image mosaic.

Five critical go/no-go decisions were made last night and early this morning, confirming different stages of readiness ahead of separation, along with a final pre-separation manoeuvre by the orbiter.

Deployment was confirmed at 09:03 GMT (10:03 CET) at a distance of 22.5km from the centre of the comet. During the seven-hour descent, which was made without propulsion or guidance, Philae took images and recorded information about the comet’s environment.

“One of the greatest uncertainties associated with the delivery of the lander was the position of Rosetta at the time of deployment, which was influenced by the activity of the comet at that specific moment, and which in turn could also have affected the lander’s descent trajectory,” said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager.

“Furthermore, we’re performing these operations in an environment that we’ve only just started learning about, 510 million kilometres from Earth.”

Not all went according to plan

Touchdown was planned to take place at a speed of around 1 m/s, with the three-legged landing gear absorbing the impact to prevent rebound, and an ice screw in each foot driving into the surface.

But during the final health checks of the lander before separation, a problem was detected with the small thruster on top that was designed to counteract the recoil of the harpoons to push the lander down onto the surface.

The conditions of landing – including whether or not the thruster performed – along with the exact location of Philae on the comet are being analysed.

An extended science phase using the rechargeable secondary battery may be possible, assuming Sun illumination conditions allow and dust settling on the solar panels does not prevent it.

This extended phase could last until March 2015, after which conditions inside the lander are expected to be too hot for it to continue operating.

Philae's first multi-image panorama from the surface of the comet.

Philae’s first multi-image panorama from the surface of the comet.

Answering the big questions

Science highlights from the primary phase will include a full panoramic view of the landing site, including a section in 3D, high-resolution images of the surface immediately underneath the lander, on-the-spot analysis of the composition of the comet’s surface materials, and a drill that will take samples from a depth of 23 cm and feed them to an onboard laboratory for analysis.

The lander will also measure the electrical and mechanical characteristics of the surface. In addition, low-frequency radio signals will be beamed between Philae and the orbiter through the nucleus to probe the internal structure.

The detailed surface measurements that Philae makes at its landing site will complement and calibrate the extensive remote observations made by the orbiter covering the whole comet.

“Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our Solar System. What were the conditions like at its infancy and how did it evolve? What role did comets play in this evolution? How do comets work?” said Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist.

“Today’s successful landing is undoubtedly the cherry on the icing of a 4 km-wide cake, but we’re also looking further ahead and onto the next stage of this ground-breaking mission, as we continue to follow the comet around the Sun for 13 months, watching as its activity changes and its surface evolves.”

A long and hard journey

While Philae begins its close-up study of the comet, Rosetta must manoeuvre from its post-separation path back into an orbit around the comet, eventually returning to a 20 km orbit on 6 December.

Next year, as the comet grows more active, Rosetta will need to step further back and fly unbound ‘orbits’, but dipping in briefly with daring flybys, some of which will bring it within just 8 km of the comet centre.

The comet will reach its closest distance to the Sun on 13 August 2015 at about 185 million km, roughly between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Rosetta will follow it throughout the remainder of 2015, as they head away from the Sun and activity begins to subside.

“It’s been an extremely long and hard journey to reach today’s once-in-a-lifetime event, but it was absolutely worthwhile. We look forward to the continued success of the great scientific endeavour that is the Rosetta mission as it promises to revolutionise our understanding of comets,” said Fred Jansen, ESA Rosetta mission manager.

You can keep up to date with the latest Rosetta news at ESA’s Rosetta blog.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Images courtesy ESA / Rosetta / Philae / CIVA.

Watch NASA’s celebrations of the Apollo 11 landing

NASA’s APOLLO 11 CREW landed on the Moon July 20, 1969 (July 21 in Australia). The world watched 45 years ago as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set their lunar module Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility, while crewmate Michael Collins orbited above in the command module Columbia.

The agency is commemorating Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” through a number of events, as well as on the agency’s website and NASA Television.

Buzz Aldrin stands next the lunar module Eagle on the surface of the Moon, July 1969.

Buzz Aldrin stands next the lunar module Eagle on the surface of the Moon, July 1969.

On July 21 at 12:39pm Monday, Eastern Australian time, (Sunday at 10:39pm, US EDT), which was the time 45 years ago when Armstrong opened the spacecraft hatch to begin the first spacewalk on the Moon, NASA TV will replay the restored footage of Armstrong and Aldrin’s historic steps on the lunar surface.

LIVE COVERAGE OF EVENTS: Watch NASA Television

On Tuesday at 12:15am, Eastern Australian time (Monday, July 21 at 10:15am, US EDT), from the agency’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, NASA TV will air live coverage of the renaming of the centre’s Operations and Checkout Building in honour of Armstrong, who passed away in 2012.

The renaming ceremony will include NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Centre Director and former space shuttle pilot Robert Cabana, as well as Apollo 11’s remaining crewmembers, Collins and Aldrin, and astronaut Jim Lovell, who was the mission’s back-up commander.

International Space Station NASA astronauts Steve Swanson, who is the current Station commander, and Reid Wiseman, also will take part in the ceremony from their orbiting laboratory 415 kilometres above Earth.

Launch of Apollo 11.

Launch of Apollo 11.

The Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin.

The Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin.

Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon.

Kennedy’s Operations and Checkout Building has played a vital role in NASA’s spaceflight history. It was used during the Apollo program to process and test the command, service and lunar modules. Today, the facility is being used to process and assemble NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which the agency will use to send astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s and Mars in the 2030s.

On Friday at 8:00am, Eastern Australian time (Thursday, July 24 at 6:00pm US EDT), which is the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s return to Earth, the agency will host a panel discussion – called NASA’s Next Giant Leap – from the Comic-Con International in San Diego, California.

Moderated by actor Seth Green, the panel will include Aldrin, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, JPL systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi (the man seen with the unique haircut in mission control during the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars), and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who will talk about Orion and the Space Launch System rocket, which will carry humans on America’s next great adventure in space.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

VIDEO: NASA tests parachutes for Orion spacecraft

NASA IS DEVELOPING A NEW crewed spacecraft called Orion… otherwise known as ‘Apollo on steroids’ because it looks like a bigger version of the spacecraft that took astronauts to the Moon.

Just like the Apollo command module, Orion will carry a heat-shield to protect it during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and huge parachutes to bring it down to a soft landing.

NASA has been conducting a series of tests to make sure the parachute system will work properly.

The first video shows a test that was conducted last year, where an Orion mock-up was dropped from the back of a military cargo aircraft to see how well its parachutes would work. There are several ‘layers’ of parachutes, each designed to slow the craft down in stages and then help to pull out the bigger parachutes. Towards the end of the test, one of the three main chutes was deliberately cut loose to see how well the system would perform on just the remaining two chutes. See what happened…

Complete success!

The second video shows a more recent test of the system that will release a cover that protects the parachutes. We say release, but it’s more like a blast, as the cover is propelled upwards by small rocket thrusters and into a safety net. Take a look…

Orion is due to start taking US astronauts into orbit toward the end of this decade. But a first test flight into space will be conducted later this year, when an uncrewed test craft will be shot into a high orbit, from which it will then re-enter the atmosphere at great speed to test the heat-shield.

Story by Jonathan Nally. Videos courtesy of NASA.

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Olympic torch to go on a spacewalk

TWO RUSSIAN COSMONAUTS will carry the Olympic torch when they venture outside the International Space Station Saturday, November 9, for a six-hour spacewalk to perform maintenance work on the orbiting laboratory.

NASA Television will provide live coverage of the spacewalk beginning at 1:00am Australian Eastern Summer Time.

Expedition 37 Flight Engineers Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) will open the hatch to the Pirs docking compartment airlock at 1:30am and float outside for a brief photo opportunity with the unlit torch. They then will stow it back inside the airlock before they begin their chores 420 kilometres above Earth.

Expedition 38 flight members holding the Olympic torch

Expedition 38 Flight Engineer Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, left, Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA, hold an Olympic torch that will be flown with them to the International Space Station, during a press conference held Wednesday, November 6, at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The torch, an icon of international co-operation through sports competition, arrived at the space station Thursday aboard a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three crew members Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, Rick Mastracchio of NASA and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. It will return to Earth on Sunday, November 10, aboard another Soyuz spacecraft vehicle along with crew members Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, Karen Nyberg of NASA, and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency.

The spacewalk is a high-flying extension of a relay that began in Olympia, Greece, in October. The relay will culminate with the torch being used to light the Olympic flame at the February 7 opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

This is not the first time that an Olympic torch has been carried into space, but it will be the first time in which one has been taken on a spacewalk.

After the photo opportunity, Kotov and Ryazanskiy will prepare a pointing platform on the hull of the station’s Zvezda service module for the installation of a high resolution camera system in December, relocate of a foot restraint for use on future spacewalks and deactivate an experiment package.

The spacewalk will be the 174th in support of space station assembly and maintenance, the fourth in Kotov’s career and the first for Ryazanskiy. This will be the eighth spacewalk conducted at the station this year. In December, Tyurin will accompany Kotov on his fifth spacewalk.

All the times of International Space Station programming, key Soyuz event coverage and other NASA Television programming can be found at: nasa.gov/stationnews

Antares roars into space

Antares Rocket Launches

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket is seen as it launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, April 21, 2013. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

NASA COMMERCIAL space partner Orbital Sciences Corporation launched its Antares rocket on Sunday from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA.

The test flight was the first launch from the pad at Wallops and was the first flight of Antares, which delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft, a so-called mass simulated payload, into Earth orbit.

The test of the Antares launch system began with the rocket’s rollout and placement on the launch pad April 6, and culminated with the separation of the mass simulator payload from the rocket just minutes after launch.

Here’s the video of the launch – it goes for about 12 minutes:

The completed flight paves the way for a demonstration mission by Orbital to resupply the space station later this year. Antares will launch experiments and supplies to the orbiting laboratory carried aboard the company’s new Cygnus cargo spacecraft through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Orbital is building and testing its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. After successful completion of a COTS demonstration mission to the station, Orbital will begin conducting eight planned cargo resupply flights to the orbiting laboratory through a US$1.9 billion NASA contract with the company.

“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America’s newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program also is working with commercial space partners to develop capabilities to launch U.S. astronauts from American soil in the next few years.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Next-gen spacecraft on display in Florida

TWO OF THE NEXT GENERATION of space vehicles are going through their paces on the ground in Florida.

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle is seen in the photo below in the high bay of the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Centre, during a tour for media representatives.

Orion is the spacecraft designed to carry crews to space beyond low-Earth orbit. It will provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

In many respects, Orion is similar to the old Apollo command module, but with the ability of carry at least four astronauts (Apollo could carry only three).

It was announced only weeks ago, that the Orion service module will be provided by the European Space Agency, based upon its successful Automated Transfer Vehicle uncrewed cargo craft.

The first unpiloted test flight of the Orion is scheduled in 2014 atop a Delta IV rocket, and in 2017, on a Space Launch System rocket.

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle at the Kennedy Space Centre

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle at the Kennedy Space Centre

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, undergoing processing for the system’s second operational flight.

Meanwhile, the Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, Dragon spacecraft with solar array fairings attached, is seen inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The spacecraft will launch on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-2 mission, perhaps in March. The flight will be the second commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station by SpaceX.

NASA has contracted for a total of 12 commercial resupply flights from SpaceX and eight from the Orbital Sciences Corp.

Adapted from information issued by NASA. Photos by Frankie Martin and Kim Shiflett.

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Remembering Apollo 5

PRIOR TO THE SUCCESSFUL manned lunar landings of the 1960s-’70s, NASA conducted a series of test flights, both crewed and uncrewed. One of those was the uncrewed Apollo 5 flight, which saw the first test (in Earth orbit) of the lunar module.

Apollo 5 (LM-1/Saturn 204) was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre’s Launch Complex 37 on January 22, 1968. The Lunar Module-1 payload was boosted into Earth orbit by a launch vehicle composed of a Saturn IB first stage and a Saturn S-IVB second stage. The Apollo lunar module’s first flight test was called a complete success. Ascent and descent propulsion systems and the ability to abort a lunar landing and return to orbit were demonstrated.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Europe/NASA join forces for next step

Artist's concept of the joint Orion/ATV module in Earth orbit

An artist’s impression of the cone-shaped NASA Orion craft attached to the cylindrical European ATV-based service module in Earth orbit. The service module will supply power generated by four solar panel ‘wings’.

  • Europe’s service module to power/supply NASA’s crew module
  • Similar in concept to Apollo’s service and command modules
  • First test flight, a lunar fly-by, set for 2017

NASA’S ORION SPACECRAFT will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV).

ATV’s distinctive four-wing solar array is recognisable in this concept. The ATV-derived service module, sitting directly below Orion’s crew capsule, will provide propulsion, power, thermal control, as well as supplying water and gas to the astronauts in the habitable module.

The first Orion mission will be an uncrewed lunar fly-by in 2017, returning for a re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 11 kilometres per second – the fastest re-entry ever.

Artist's impression of an Orion/ATV-based craft approaching an asteroid

In this artist’s impression, an Orion crew module and ATV-based service module are attached to further modules and a solar power array as they approach an asteroid. The supplies carried by, and energy generated by, the service module, will enable medium-duration missions to be attempted.

Albert Einstein to launch

This collaboration between ESA and NASA continues the spirit of international cooperation that forms the foundation of the International Space Station.

Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) have been resupplying the International Space Station since 2008. The fourth in the series, named Albert Einstein, is being readied for launch this year from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The ATV-derived service module, sitting directly below Orion’s crew capsule, will provide propulsion, power, thermal control, as well as supplying water and gas to the astronauts in the habitable module.

Artist's concept of the joint Orion/ATV module

The ATV-based service module will carry the craft’s main propulsion rocket, the nozzle of which can be seen on the right of this artist’s impression.

Critical element for exploration

The ATV performs many functions during missions to the International Space Station. The space freighter reboosts the Station into higher altitudes and can even push the orbital complex out of the way of space debris. While docked, ATV becomes an extra module for the astronauts. Lastly, at the end of its mission it leaves the Space Station with waste materials.

“ATV has proven itself on three flawless missions to the Space Station and this agreement is further confirmation that Europe is building advanced, dependable spacecraft,” said Nico Dettmann, Head of ATV’s production programme.

Thomas Reiter, ESA director of Human Spaceflight and Operations says: “NASA’s decision to co-operate with ESA on their exploration programme with ESA delivering a critical element for the mission is a strong sign of trust and confidence in ESA’s capabilities, for ESA it is an important contribution to human exploration.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA.

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Surveyor 7: Setting the scene for Apollo

PRIOR TO THE SUCCESSFUL Apollo lunar landings, NASA sent a series of uncrewed probes to the Moon to learn more about the lunar surface. The last of these, Surveyor 7, was launched 45 years ago today.

A model of the Surveyor 7 spacecraft

A model of the Surveyor 7 spacecraft

Surveyor 7 was the last of the original series of Surveyor moon landers of the late 1960s and was dedicated primarily to scientific investigations. By 1968, the spacecraft’s predecessors had already performed much of the investigative work into the feasibility of a future human mission to the moon.

Surveyor 7’s mission was decidedly unique – it was the only spacecraft of the series to land in the lunar highland region. And it had the most extensive set of instruments, with which it conducted a number of scientific experiments on the lunar soil. Findings from Surveyor 7 were fairly consistent with earlier missions except that chemical analysis of the highland crust showed it to have less iron than samples from the lunar maria.

More information: Surveyor 7

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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The day we touched the Moon

IN TRIBUTE TO THE LATE Neil Armstrong, a temporary display case was set up in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington, D.C. The display included the gloves and visor that Armstrong wore when he first stepped on the surface of the Moon July 20, 1969. They were among the most visible parts of his Apollo 11 spacesuit and were designed specifically to deal with the hazards of working on the lunar surface.

The gloves have blue silicone fingertips and stainless-steel fabric that wraps the hands with a long white gauntlet, with instructions printed on the left one. The visor provided the protection astronauts needed to survive in the absence of the sun-filtering effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. These objects were transferred to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum from NASA in 1971.

Gloves worn by astronaut Neil Armstrong

These gloves were made for and worn by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. They are made of Chromel-R fabric with insulation for protection against extreme hot and cold, while the fingertips consist of a rubber/neoprene compound to provide sensitivity.

Visor Assembly worn by Neil Armstrong

The A7-L Lunar Extravehicular Visor Assembly was worn by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission and consists of a polycarbonate shell. This helmet was worn over the pressure helmet and provided the protection needed during moonwalk periods.

 

Spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin

The spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

 

Apollo 11 Command Module

The Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, was the living quarters for the three-person crew during most of the first manned lunar-landing mission. This Command Module, no. 107, manufactured by North American Rockwell, was one of three parts of the complete Apollo spacecraft. The other two parts were the Service Module and the Lunar Module, nicknamed "Eagle." The Service Module contained the main spacecraft propulsion system and consumables while the Lunar Module was the two-person craft used by Armstrong and Aldrin to descend to the moon's surface July 20. The Command Module is the only portion of the spacecraft to return to Earth. It was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1970 following a NASA-sponsored tour of USA cities.

Adapted from information issued by the Smithsonian Institution. Photos by Dane Penland, Mark Avino and Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum’

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