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Cosmic Log: Jan. 7-13, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Take a virtual tour of the Saturnian moon's surface. Plus: Agony and ecstasy, triskaidekamania, Pluto's planethood, new constellations, galactic glories, hyperspace hype and "Survivor" spaceman.
A simulated camera looks back at the Huygens lander on the surface of Titan in a "virtual tour" based on data sent back by Huygens itself.
A simulated camera looks back at the Huygens lander on the surface of Titan in a "virtual tour" based on data sent back by Huygens itself.Esa

Jan. 13, 2006 |
Titan revisited: One year after the Huygens probe floated through the smoggy haze of Titan and sent back the first picture from the surface of a Saturnian moon, the European Space Agency is presenting a way-cool virtual tour of the Huygens landing site.

You can even sample the ESA's podcast and vodcast marking the Huygens anniversary. Unfortunately, the robotic honoree isn't able to join in the celebration — because it's frozen in place on Titan, looking a bit like a metallic cake that someone left out in the methane rain.

Kevin Grazier, a member of the Cassini-Huygens mission team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, notes that Huygens was designed to last just a half-hour in Titanic temperatures that range around 289 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (94 degrees Kelvin). Huygens lasted hours longer, and thus deserves its hero status.

"Someday, somebody will bring it back to the Smithsonian," Grazier told me today.

Even though Huygens is now nothing more than a way, way-cool memorial, the Cassini mothership is still less than halfway through its four-year mission to study Saturn, its rings and its moons — including Titan. The next Titan flyby is due to take place on Sunday, passing within 1,300 miles (2,000 kilometers) of the surface.

Grazier said scientists are already talking about what to do once Cassini's primary mission ends in 2008. "We are looking at what our options are for an extended mission at the present point in time," he said.

The images and scientific findings from Cassini have been pouring out like water from a firehose, shedding new light on Saturn's weather patterns and ring structure as well as the composition of the planet's many moons. Check out NASA's Cassini-Huygens Web site as well as the imaging team's site for a taste. Huygens — and Cassini — are the scientific gifts that keep on giving.

"It's not a stretch to say that people are going to be getting dissertations out of this for 50 years," Grazier said.

Jan. 13, 2006 |
The agony and the ecstasy: For robotic space exploration, January is the coolest month — and not just because of the Huygens anniversary. Two years ago this month, NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers touched down on the Red Planet, and they're still going strong. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has passed along the Spirit rover's self-portrait, a panorama of Spirit's sandy surroundings and a close-up view of Opportunity's latest geology find, the smiling festoons of Meridiani. The next few days should also mark the return of NASA's Stardust probe, laden with interstellar dust and samples from a comet, as well as the launch of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, making January even cooler.

For NASA's human spaceflight program, January (plus the first day of February) is the cruelest month, bringing up memories of the Apollo 1 fire on Jan 27, 1967; the Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986; and the Columbia breakup on Feb. 1, 2003. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, so you can expect to hear much more about the memorials in the days to come. To start with, you can click through NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree's eight-chapter retelling of the Challenger saga.

Jan. 13, 2006 |
Triskaidekamania: Each year has as few as one or as many as three Friday the 13ths, and we're getting the first of this year's two occurrences out of the way early. Although the day is considered a particularly unlucky break, mathematicians have noted that the 13th of the month is slightly more likely to fall on a Friday than on any other day of the week. For more triskaideka-lore, click here, here and here.

Jan. 13, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Deadly Ascent'
BBC: First Galileo signals received Military women can hack it
Nature: Desktop fusion is back on the table
Telegraph: 'Forbidden' Gospel of Judas to be published

Jan. 12, 2006 |
Last call for Pluto: How many planets should there be? The current nine, or eight, or 10 or more? The answer to those questions mostly have to do with how you view Pluto — which has been considered the ninth planet for 75 years, but now appears to rank no higher than No. 10 in size among the thousands of objects orbiting our sun.

Over the past couple of weeks, the nonprofit Planetary Society has been asking folks to weigh in with their reasons why Pluto should or should not keep its planetary status — and today was the last day for submissions. The top-rated entries will be posted on the society’s Web site in advance of Tuesday's scheduled launch of New Horizons, NASA’s mission to Pluto and other realms on the solar system's fringe.

In our unscientific Live Vote, MSNBC users have leaned toward preserving Pluto as a major planet, and adding any other sun-orbiting worlds that were around Pluto’s size. That would include the recently discovered iceball called Xena, and maybe more as time goes on. For now, that seems fair to me — but if the planetary list grows to 20 or 30 or beyond, I might have to reconsider that stand.

Even though the Planetary Society has ended its call for planethood pros and cons, there's still time to get in a question or two for a NASA Webcast scheduled to air at 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, during which launch managers and scientists will discuss the New Horizons mission. NASA also will offer Webcast coverage of the launch itself, starting at 11 a.m. ET Tuesday.

Here are some of your own thoughts on Pluto's planetary status, gleaned from the Cosmic Log mailbox:

Jennifer McCrackan, Albuquerque, N.M.: “My brother Michael and I are 13 years and 15 years old respectively, and we are both immensely interested in astronomy. We would like Pluto to keep its planetary status. Pluto and its moon, Charon, make up a system with its own solar orbit, the same as Earth and its moon. Despite the fact that Pluto is so small, we do not think this is reason enough to demote it, because in the far future when humans colonize the solar system, Pluto is still large enough to live and build upon just as much as planning is under way for our moon. We also think Pluto serves an important role in keeping the other bodies of the solar system in their proper places. Pluto has a job to do, so it deserves equal planetary status with the rest of the solar system's planets. We understand that it is important for the science world to be as accurate as possible, but my brother and I are not really certain that the facts about Pluto will be made any more scientifically accurate by taking away its planetary status. …”Byron Raum, Beverly Hills, Calif.: “Since the ‘Pluto is a planet’ crowd is so adamant that we have to preserve our heritage and history: Let us just designate the largest iceball out there as Pluto. If we find a iceball out there that's larger than the current Pluto, then let that one be Pluto. This way, you can always argue on the basis of size: Pluto is a planet that is ‘this’ large, irrespective of what ‘this’ is. As we discover larger bodies, we can upgrade ‘this.’ This way, there will always be a Pluto, and civilization will not fall.” Tim: “Ceres was considered a planet for a long time. Even after Vesta was discovered, it still was, but then more and more asteroids were discovered, and it became obvious they weren't. Now we have Pluto, and Mr. Number Ten, and who knows what else is out there. Sooner or later it will become clear that history is repeating itself. We're pretty certain that there isn't another ‘biggie’ out there, so why not correct a historical error, much the way Ceres and Vesta were demoted, and put the number of planets at eight, with two zones of minor planets?”J.P. Hackman, Rexburg, Idaho: “I think Pluto deserves a place in the list of solar-system planets. The reason is simple: Pluto was the last large solar body discovered in our solar system before the advent of computer technology. It is computers and the vast amount of processing power they provide, for both image processing and telescope design, that has made it possible to find objects such as Sedna.”Bill Wright: “Planets should lie in the solar plane.  Planets should have circular orbits.  Neptune and Uranus were ‘discovered’ planets in that they were resolved after the acceptance of telescopes as instruments of science.  Both are in near circular orbits within the plane of ecliptic, and neither required the development of chemical or electronic imaging technologies.  If you know exactly where to look, both can be viewed using simple pinholes without mirrors or lenses.“There is a category called ‘minor planet’ that is used to describe asteroids, many of which have highly perturbed orbits.  For the sake of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto might deserve some mention as the farthest object in our solar system discovered using non-electronic techniques.  However, it is simply a minor planet with more in common with Ceres than Earth.  Pull out the emotions over the discoverer, and it is easy to simply refer to Pluto as a rather large Kuiper Belt asteroid.“One of the principles of science is to defer to international societies that employ the logical testing of hypotheses and produce rule-based declarations. The International Astronomical Union is the body responsible for this task.  If they follow the reasons stated above, then the public and press should simply accept that.  For those who disagree, go back to school, do some science, and then join the IAU in sufficient numbers to change the rules.”

For the record, the IAU says it has not considered changing Pluto’s status as a planet and does not intend to return to the issue "in the foreseeable future."

By the way, if you miss today’s deadline for the Planetary Society’s Pluto contest, you still have one more day to send in your entry for its “Postcards From Venus” contest – but you’d better get it in online rather than trusting snail mail. The Venus art contest is keyed to the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission, and the top winner is promised a trip to the European Space Operations Center in Germany for the probe’s arrival at its destination in April. For details, check out the contest rules from the Planetary Society.

Jan. 12, 2006 |
Creating new constellations: There are a couple of new combinations on the science and space scene — one relating to eyes in the sky and the other relating to voices in the blogosphere.

  • Virginia-based Orbimage Holdings says it has completed its acquisition of Colorado-based Space Imaging's assets, and will now be doing business under the brand name GeoEye. The acquisition makes GeoEye the world's largest commercial satellite imagery company — at least according to today's news release. GeoEye operates three Earth-imaging satellites: OrbView 2, OrbView 3 and Ikonos. Its main commercial competitor is Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.
  • This week Seed magazine took the wraps off ScienceBlogs, a constellation of science-related Web logs. Fourteen blogs are on the list right now, including such heavy-hitters as Chris Mooney's Intersection and P.Z. Myers' Pharyngula. Welcome to the blogroll, gang!

Jan. 12, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
The Guardian: The Noah's Ark of seeds Robotic snails trail across ceilings
The Economist: Maybe the Chinese
Slate: The amphibian pregnancy test

Jan. 11, 2006 |
Galactic glories: You can look at galaxies as complex assemblages of billions of stars, shedding light on cosmic origins and other deep issues — or you can look at them as mere ripples and swirls in the sea of the universe, with a beauty that goes beyond the science.

Imagery like the Galaxy Evolution Explorer's latest view of the Cartwheel Galaxy appeals to both those impulses. This false-color picture actually combines the Galex satellite's ultraviolet view (marked in blue) with imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope in visible-light wavelengths (green), from the Spitzer Space Telescope in the infrared (red) and from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (purple).

The result is a psychedelic fireworks display that's a treat for the eye. But as is often the case, the Galex astronomers didn't put this image together just to make a pretty picture. The different combinations of colors tell a 100-million-year-long story about how this galaxy formed.

Scientists say the Cartwheel's hub-and-rim shape most likely came about because a smaller galaxy plunged right through the galaxy's center — setting off a series of immense, radiating shock waves.

"It's a little bit analogous to dropping a stone into a pond, and watching a ripple and then sometimes a second ripple go out from the center," lead investigator Philip Appleton of the Spitzer Science Center explained in a podcast accompanying the new imagery.

These ripples compress gas and dust within the galaxy, sparking rings of star formation. The outer ring, seen here in blue and purple, makes the Cartwheel one of the most powerful ultraviolet-emitting galaxies in the nearby universe. The purplish spots are thought to be regions where X-ray-emitting black holes lurk.

That's one ripple in the pool. The yellow-orange inner ring is yet another ripple, where star formation isn't quite as vigorous. In addition to those two rings, Galex has detected yet another disk, too faint to be seen in this image, which extends to twice the diameter of the blue-purple ring. That would make the extended Cartwheel more than two times the size of our own Milky Way galaxy.

The brightly colored blobs to the lower left of the Cartwheel are smaller galaxies, and scientists believe one of them is probably the "stone" that set off the ripples in the first place.

The $71.6 million Galex probe was launched into Earth orbit in 2003, on a mission to map the sky in ultraviolet wavelengths. Those wavelengths are particularly good for tracking the process of star formation in galaxies — hence the name "Galaxy Evolution Explorer." The Cartwheel is about 420 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Sculptor. (One light year equals about 6 trillion miles or 10 trillion kilometers.)

Closer to home, the Spitzer Space Telescope has taken a look at the traffic jam at the center of our own galaxy. Spitzer's infrared camera is particularly good at cutting through interstellar dust to see the stars within — and in the color-coded image released today, those rivers of stars show up in unprecedented detail. The version shown here doesn't do justice to the full view; check out the Spitzer Web site for bigger pictures.

One perspective spans 890 light-years of the Milky Way's central region, roughly 26,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. Older, cooler stars show up in shades of blue, while the reddish shades denote regions of dust that have been lit up by younger, hotter stars.

Another perspective takes a closer look at those hot, dusty regions, including nebulae known by fanciful names such as Quintuplet, Sickle and Pistol. You can also see stringy filaments of heated dust, as well as the bright spot that likely represents heated-up material swirling around our galaxy's central black hole.

In today's news release, Susan Stolovy of the Spitzer Science Center said the imagery of the Milky Way's hot center "is crammed with features that we're just beginning to explore."

"One question we hope to address is how stars can form so efficiently in a place like the galactic center," Stolovy said. "Stars there are still able to form in an environment with unusually strong magnetic fields and tidal shear forces."

Both the Spitzer and the Galex imagery were released at the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Washington this week. Check in with our Space News section for still more glories from the AAS gathering.

Jan. 11, 2006 |
Space odysseys on the World Wide Web:
Flight Int'l: Orbital SpaceShipThree poised to follow Astronomers see 'star formation on steroids'
PhysOrg: Spitzer finds possible comet dust around dead starJohns Hopkins: Scientists 'RAVE' about map of Milky Way

Jan. 10, 2006 |
Returning to hyperspace: The idea that extradimensional physics could allow for faster-than-light travel — highlighted last week by New Scientist magazine — is still reverberating around the Internet and the scientific world.

One of the researchers who was quoted in New Scientist, Sandia National Laboratory's Roger Lenard, told me today that he was willing to take a stab at fleshing out the physics behind the hyperspace hype, known as Heim quantum theory. If the theory can be put into a more complete form, Lenard said he just might serve as an advocate for Walter Dröscher and Jochem Häuser, the scientists who say the theory could make hyperspace travel possible.

Dröscher and Häuser say Sandia's high-energy Z Machine could help determine whether the late physicist Burkhard Heim's theory is correct — a claim that earned Lenard's respect. "At least these people have the chutzpah to propose an experiment," Lenard said.

But Lenard said he wasn't yet sure whether the theory could be sufficiently fleshed out, and he cautioned that other projects had priority. "I've got so darn much to do," he said. One of his top interests is to study quantum entanglement and look into how it could be applied to communications.

Entanglement is yet another phenomenon that Albert Einstein said was impossible, but that doesn't faze Lenard. "We already know that the world is far more complex, and strange, and beautiful than we thought," he said.

How serious is this hyperspace stuff? Judging from the response I received to last week's item on the subject, maybe I should be taking it a little more seriously:

Will Mari, Snoqualmie, Wash.: "That was an excellent summary on the current status of the still-far-out concept of faster-than-light travel. Of course, 100 years from now, perhaps our descendants will look back on our doubts, tut-tut’s, and generally pessimistic view towards crazy concepts like 'warp drive,' and giggle mirthfully, rather like we do when we mock those who doubted that man would fly 100 years ago. Besides, the history of how mankind broke the 'light barrier' has already been written."Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J.: "While near-instantaneous travel between celestial points sounds tempting, there may be other hurdles besides the mere technical one of (seemingly) thwarting Einstein. We've got to do more than thwart the universal speed-limit, we've got to thwart all the 'stuff' separating us from our destination."Space is only a relative vacuum ... there's "stuff" everywhere, especially in the vicinity of solar systems (where most of the interesting destinations are). At a significant fraction of c [the speed of light], even thinly distributed hydrogen atoms hardly seem thinly distributed. Zipping through the 'vacuum of space' at 0.999 c would be like flying head first into a giant blowtorch ... if we're lucky. Imagine what it would be like at 1.5 c or (God help us) 5 c. Hit a fleck of interstellar dust? Game Over."What do you get when crackpot alien scientists (what? you thought crackpots were limited to New Jersey?) build hyperspace drives without taking the presence of interstellar 'stuff' into account? You get gamma ray bursts ... maybe!"Pete: "I read the New Scientist article in question, and it did strike me as a bit too good to be true and lacking in substance. Thank you for a more honest appraisal of the situation. However, in your article you compare pursuing this idea to the idea of a space elevator. A space elevator is something that will work, given our current understanding of physics, and the only obstacles to building one are engineering. A 'hyperdrive' would require that the laws of physics be rewritten before we could even think about engineering. Lumping the two concepts together like that unfairly discredits space elevators — a legitimate technological goal that should be looked into."

My reference to the space elevator concept (and, by the way, spray-on spacesuits) was meant only to illustrate that orthodox groups such as NASA and the Pentagon sometimes fund unorthodox ideas. I didn't mean to discredit space elevators — some of my best sources are elevatorites.

Several readers felt that Friday's item unfairly knocked the scientific theory behind the hyperdrive hype. I asked theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss to take a look at the New Scientist article and the supporting research papers for three reasons: He's done research in the field, he's just written a book about the fact and fiction of extra dimensions, and one of his earlier books was cited by Dröscher and Häuser. But some readers wrote that Krauss' assessment of the theory as a "crackpot" idea sounded too harsh.

Here's a selection of those e-mails:

Jerry Johnson: "It's unfortunate that the only person upon whose views you base your article is a person appearing to have an evident agenda. The AIAA paper is based upon research by Burkhard Heim. Nowhere do you or Dr. Krauss mention that the most immediately pertinent result flowing from Heim's theory is not space travel, but the prediction of the masses of fundamental particles to within the accuracy of experimental error, essentially from first principles (as I understand the article). Does Dr. Krauss have a better way to do that?"Carl: "I'm just a everyday person, but it sounds like Mr. Krauss is trying to shut this idea down as much because it resembles ideas in the NASA Breakthrough [Propulsion Physics] program which he proudly admits that he shut down before. Even if it might be incorrect, I think he's just highly biased and is trying to discredit the hyperspace theory for his own political advantage. After all, if this theory is proved right, how many others might have been right and were shut down by him."Adam Crowl: "Krauss is doing his job as a responsible scientist when he being properly skeptical of new ideas, and I respect that. At the same time he seems to consistently go overboard with his negative reactions when he encounters something unorthodox. Personally, I like the possibilities presented by Heim's theory and the extension into eight dimensions that Droescher has worked out — who knows, it might even be a part of that ever elusive 'M' theory. Antigravity and hyperdrive are ideas that deserve to be pursued experimentally, not merely dismissed out of hand, which Krauss seems to do almost reflexively. What's Krauss' motivation?"George: "I cannot see why Lawrence Krauss is complaining about the New Scientist report. It's not 'irresponsible in the extreme' — I think it is rather cautious in fact, if you read it. And [the claim that] 'he did not interview any real particle physicists' does not hold true either — New Scientist did talk with Markus Pössel, a theoretical physicist at the Max Planck Institute, and Hans Theodor Auerbach, a theoretical physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. And everyone agrees that Heim's work is difficult to understand — but those that do, find it in ingenious. And it does predict correctly particle masses — something no current theory does. I don't think that guy Lawrence Krauss read the New Scientist article or Heim's work. And it was irresponsible of you to give voice to only him and no one else in your log."

I wouldn't want to get into Krauss' definition of "real particle physicists," though I will note that Pössel was a project editor (PDF file) for the Max Planck Institute's "Einstein Online" Web site. I'll also note that the log item gave voice to Sandia's Neal Singer and provided ample links to other resources on Heim quantum theory.

The big thing that the Heim quantum theory appears to have going for it is indeed the claim that it predicts the masses of fundamental subatomic particles. University of Washington physicist Andreas Karch, who has published work along with Harvard's Lisa Randall on extradimensional physics, agrees that such a feat is nothing to sneeze at. Right now, the particle masses have to be plugged into the Standard Model in order to yield results.

"If you have a fundamental theory that could predict them, that would be nice," Karch told me today. However, he added, "It doesn't seem to do much more than that. ... It's certainly not a complete theory yet, because it couldn't tell you how the fundamental particles interact with each other."

Karch cautioned that his remarks were based on one day's worth of examination, since he first heard about Heim quantum theory and the hyperspace hype just yesterday. "The one warning I would have is that physics is a lot more than those numbers," he said.

In an e-mail response, Krauss said he noticed the claim about particle masses but didn't agree with the idea that Heim's theory arrived at those masses from first principles. "First principles require the use of quantum field theory, understanding the strong interaction, etc. — and simply using gravity and electromagnetism is not first principles," he said. "So any mass fit is purely accidental and not from first principles."

Is Krauss being too hard on his fellow physicists? Well, he's hard on string theorists, too. It's good to have the skeptics as well as the dreamers out there. That's how science is done.

Jan. 10, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Nature: Can genes leave clues as to cause of death?
Univ. of Michigan: Scientists detect a dent in space-time
UCLA: Astronomers report mysterious giant star clusters
Carnegie Inst.: Planetary systems can form around binary starsSydney Morning Herald: Rowdy neighbor gate-crashes Milky Way Rapid rotation puts a bulge in Vega
Slate: My brain is a walnut

Jan. 9, 2006 |
Spaceman on ‘Survivor’: For years, reality-TV producers have been trying to get a show into space — but so far, the best they've been able to do is to stage a faux flight. The upcoming season of CBS' "Survivor" takes a different tack, by including a recently retired astronaut among its 16 contestants.

Thanks to the TV exposure, Dan Barry may well become better-known on the air than he was as a three-time space flier — although his NASA experience already reads like a "Survivor" success story.

Barry, who has a doctorate in computer science and electrical engineering as well as a medical degree, applied to the astronaut office 15 times before he was accepted, according to a Beloit College commencement address he gave in 2003. He conducted a spacewalk during his first spaceflight in 1996, was part of the first shuttle mission to dock with the international space station in 1999, and did two spacewalks during a station visit in 2001.

Barry holds five patents and has had more than 50 papers published in scientific journals, according to his biographies from NASA and CBS. He left the astronaut corps in April to start up his own company, Denbar Robotics, which is developing mini-bot crawlers as well as a "household robotic assistant" dubbed Neel. So he should fit in with the "Survivor: Panama" crowd about as well as the Professor did on "Gilligan's Island," right?

Not necessarily. Sometimes the contestants with the most impressive credentials are often among the first to get voted off — after all, those are the folks most likely to beat you in the immunity challenges. And even if the seeming stars do keep up with the physical and mental challenges, they may become grist for the group's complicated political machinations. Just ask Gary Hogeboom, the former NFL quarterback who was voted out in the 12th week of the last "Survivor" series.

Regardless of whether Barry makes it to the final showdown, his presence should provide an opportunity for "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett to work in some of the outer-space angles he's long wanted to put in prime time. Over the past five years or so, Burnett has tried more than once to devise a reality-TV series that would climax with a ride in space for the winner.

Back in the year 2000, Burnett told me that his space show would be "really the beginning of the privatization of space" — and even though he had to put the idea on the back burner due to the loss of Russia's Mir space station and the Columbia tragedy, there are still periodic rumblings about the prospects for future shows set in space.

For now, the TV shows with the closest links to outer space merely provide the trappings of spaceflight training, while stopping short of the big (and, not incidentally, tremendously risky) payoff. In Britain, "Space Cadets" purportedly fooled contestants into thinking they were flying in space, although some folks wondered whether the whole program was aimed at fooling the viewing public instead.

Meanwhile, Hollywood mogul Ron Howard and his colleagues are reportedly working on a space-camp show tentatively titled "XQuest," which could find its way into Fox's prime-time schedule sometime in the next year.

Barry's involvement in a relatively real reality-TV show may well serve as a test case, indicating whether space veterans have the "Right Stuff" to engage a prime-time audience.

"There may not yet be a 'Survivor'-in-space," Robert Pearlman, editor of the CollectSpace Web site, told me in an e-mail, "but we now have space-in-'Survivor.'"

Jan. 9, 2006 |
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
PBS: "Nova ScienceNow" on the year's top storiesNational Geographic: Graves reveal America's first baby boomNew Scientist: The lie detector you'll never know was there
Universe Today: "What's Up 2006: 365 Days of Skywatching"

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