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Cosmic Log: Back to Apollo

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Maybe NASA's next spaceship is deserving of the name from the space effort's glory days. Plus: Mars movie update ... Prime time for Saturn ... A deal for Rocketplane ... Spots on space shots ... Feedback on methane and native languages.
The concept for NASA's next Crew Exploration Vehicle, shown here, is reminiscent of the Apollo spacecraft. Could "Apollo" turn out to be the best name for it?
The concept for NASA's next Crew Exploration Vehicle, shown here, is reminiscent of the Apollo spacecraft. Could "Apollo" turn out to be the best name for it?NASA

Jan. 27, 2006 |
From Apollo to ... Apollo? What's in a name? When it comes to conveyances, a name isn't just a label. It's invested with emotions and imagery and history that should inspire your confidence as well as your imagination.

That goes especially for spaceships like the new ones that NASA is planning to replace the shuttle fleet, to get humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars. As we discussed earlier in the week, the discussion has focused on what to name the CEV (the Crew Exploration Vehicle, a blunt-body capsule for the astronaut crew), the CLV (the Crew Launch Vehicle, the rocket that launches the CEV) and the LSAM (the Lunar Surface Access Module, which would go down from lunar orbit to the moon's surface).

One set of names that reportedly is in a document somewhere at NASA suggests Ares (the Greek equivalent to Mars) for the CLV rocket, Antares ("rival to Mars") for the CEV and Artemis (Apollo's twin sister and goddess of the moon) for the LSAM. But those names aren't set in stone yet, so there's still an opening for suggestions. And boy, did you have suggestions.

To me, the most intriguing idea would be to name the Crew Exploration Vehicle (drum roll, please) ... Apollo. Unimaginative? I suppose, but after all, the proposed concept looks like an Apollo command module, and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin did call the idea "Apollo on steroids." Reverting to the Apollo name would send a powerful signal that America is returning to the vision that had to be put on hold 30 years ago, and that there's a continuity between the past and the future.

If the CEV ends up looking significantly different from an Apollo craft, this wouldn't work so well. But as long as it looks like a beefed-up Apollo, and works like a beefed-up Apollo, why not go all the way? Call it Apollo Mark 2, if you must.

Other than that, I'm fine with Antares-Ares-Artemis scheme, which partly echoes a suggestion made a couple of years ago by Mark R. Whittington of Curmudgeons Corner. Since Mark clearly was on to something last time, I'll give him the first say in today's selection of e-mail feedback (his mention of the SDLV, or shuttle-derived launch vehicle, refers to the heavy-lifter that would boost large payloads into space):

Mark R. Whittington: "I rather like these names, obviously. But, for alternatives, how about going to Norse mythology?• CLV: Odin 1• SDLV: Odin 5• CEV: Valkyrie• LSAM: Freya"Or, perhaps from the great Age of Sail:• CLV: Sky Galley• SDLV: Sky Galleon• CEV: Lunar Caravel• LSAM: Lunar Pinance"David Alexander: "The next-generation CEV command module looks like a 'supersized' Apollo capsule.  Though it will be reusable with contemporary technology, it is based on the most successful spacecraft NASA contractors have ever come up with (it is a return to the common-sense design that should not have been abandoned but allowed to evolve.)  A nod to the generation that blazed the trail is appropriate, and since, in essence, we are returning to our roots and picking up where Apollo 17 left off, it is logical to continue the 'Apollo' name. ... The redesigned 'LM' could be known as 'Artemis.'  The astronauts could name their LSAMs as the original Apollo astronauts did. The Apollo moon program was abruptly ended, never taken to its next phase. There were, after all,  plans for a moon base and flights to Mars based on Apollo."David Shows, Columbia, Miss.: "Two suggestions for the name of the spaceship: The Apollo:  god of order, harmony and the civilization.  Naming the Apollo program was a stroke of genius.  It's only natural that a ship to return man to the stars would be named after him. ... The Prometheus: the Titan that gave fire to man, considered the wisest Titan.  Known as a benefactor of man."Dan: "All names are from the legendary Titans (easy to make the connections, yes?) Rocket:  Prometheus (stealer of fire to help humans; associated with fire and repetition through work). Crew ship:  Hyperion (the god of observation; appropriate for crews leaving Earth and anticipating their missions on the moon). Lander:  Oceanus (the god of the mysterious seas, unlike Poseidon who ruled over the Mediterranean waters)."Mike Fleegal: "CEV = Orion ... CLV = Aries ... LSAM = Eagle."Jim Wollmer: "CEV – Aether (God of Air) ... CLV – Meteor (fast and swift) ...Heavy-lift CLV – Hercules ... LSAM – Aquila (The Eagle)."Tanner: "The CEV or command module would be called Antares or Triton. The rocket CLV would be called the Procyon 5, and the lunar lander LSAM would be called Armstrong."Buddy Knight: "CLV - Magnum (Speaks to speed and power, a la a .44 Magnum and Magnum rockets) ... CEV - Clipper (After the fast and powerful clipper ships of the 19th century) ... LSAM Enterprise (Not only after everyone's favorite starship, but with the plans to economically develop space and the moon, the combination of the Clipper CEV and the Enterprise LSAM would speak to the economic as well as exploratory nature of the vehicles)."Rebecca Artz: "I personally would name them after the presidents, or heroes of the space program. It would make for personalizing, and give an order to the programs. It could be used in schools to help children associate past history with the ongoing history of the space program, like parallel histories. Thanks for the opportunity to participate with my suggestion. I'm old enough to remember how we all sat on our front porches watching for 'Sputnik' to orbit, and a chance to see a real spaceship. My awe is still piqued by the wonders of it all."Cleve Johnson: "I think that the name Ares should be reserved for future manned Mars missions.  I think that Artemis is an appropriate name for any ships that go to the moon.  Perhaps other considerations should be character qualities, such as Providence, Courageous, Venture, or other such names."John Sims: "The CEV should be named 'Enterprise'! It's a name that's been used by our navy for centuries and evokes the idea of accomplishing somthing of greatness.It also happens to be the name of the most famous fictional spaceship of all time. Seeing as we are (finally) leaving orbit and venturing out for good, why not give it a name with a little pazazz!"Emily: "There's always Enterprise. Yes, I know it's been used already, but that shouldn't preclude NASA from using it again. OK, I am a 'Trek' geek and would love to see another real-life Enterprise. And I bet a lot of other people would, too. ... It would be interesting to see a little variety in names coming from different cultures, instead of always going with Greco-Roman themes, maybe from Egyptian mythology or something else instead."Nathan Morrison, San Diego: "I always liked the Greek/Egyptian god name Set. If I were to build a vehicle that descended from orbit to surface and back again, that would be its designation. Appropriate for Mars too, in the mythology."Morgan Farnsworth, Parker, Colo.: "I would suggest 'Thor' as a name for the rocket."Jake: "I suggest one of the vehicles (Probably the LSAM) to be called 'Pheidippides' - it's the person who supposedly ran 42 kilometers after the Battle of Marathon. I think it fits with the descent/ascent stages of the module."Edward Boyle: "How about naming some of these spacecraft after the people who inspired us (the American public) and more than a few NASA folks to 'reach for the stars'! Isaac Asimov ... Arthur C. Clarke ... Clifford Simak ... Poul Anderson ... Allen Steele (a.k.a. the new Heinlein) ... And my personal top choice, Robert A. Heinlein. Poll NASA and its contractors about who inspired them to work in space exploration. I will bet serious money Robert tops the list. Ask them who helped form their value of honor, integrity, and service to our country. His name will come up again. Ask how many are, as Virginia put it, 'Heinlein’s children.' Ask them when a quart of Pacific seawater is going to the moon. You may not understand this last question, but that is OK. Heinlein’s children will know."Matthew: "Must we use names from mythology?? It’s getting a bit old. NASA should try something fresh and interesting for names. I’m not saying we should name the stuff after famous people and such, which would’ve probably happened if we didn’t use mythological names. I’m talking about names no one’s thought of before. We need to be original. How about 'Alkaline' for the CLV, 'Lithium' for the HLV, 'Fissile' for the CEV, and 'Piff' for the LSAM? Just my fairly worthless 2 cents."Dean Reynolds: "OK, OK, OK. Corny, I know, but how about naming the three vehicles after great men or women in the field? The actual rocket, the Goddard; the transportation part, the Newton; the lander, the Galileo. Or if you're more literate, the rocket, Asimov; the transport, Heinlein; and the capsule, the Clarke. One more rocket ride blasting off, carrying the Glenn that will release the Shepard."Dennis Davis, Grants Pass, Ore.: "In the tradition of honoring the past, I believe the crew vehicle to Mars should be named after a true giant of exploration, analysis, and explanation.  I propose that the crew ride the 'Beagle' to Mars, and descend to the surface in the 'Darwin' lander to set up Mars base 'Galapagos.'"Thomas: "How about 'The FedEx Kinko's Rocket' for the CLV and 'The Embassy Suites Crew Accommodations Vehicle' for the CEV?"

Jan. 27, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Secrets of the Lost Empires: Roman Bath'
The Economist: A fall of moon dustWall Street Journal: An X Prize for DNA decoding
Slate: Where do zoo animals go when they die?

Jan. 26, 2006 |
How many stars for Mars? After a weeks-long buildup, "Roving Mars" is finally hitting Imax ultra-wide-screen theaters this weekend. For the Mars rover scientists and the filmmakers, it's a four-star smash, just like the real-life mission. "Is there anything better that Americans are doing these days than that mission to Mars?" writer/director George Butler asked in The New York Times' behind-the-scenes story (registration required).

But how will the movie do among the civilians? Based on the initial reviews, your opinion of the movie may depend on your geek quotient. Newsday gives the flick three stars while noting that it looks like "a large-scale advertisement for the space program." The Get Out review is less generous, complaining that the 40-minute movie was little more than a "geekasm." And a couple of reviewers said they felt like they were sitting through a big-screen "Nova" or Discovery Channel episode (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Last month, Steve Squyres, the rover missions' chief scientist, marveled at the way the filmmakers used digital tools to reconstruct whole scenes showing the rovers roaming the Red Planet. That magic didn't sit too well with some of the reviewers, because they thought it gave a surreal kind of "Capricorn One" flavor to the movie. But to my mind, such wizardry could eventually evolve into an immersive 3-D experience.

When I wrote about "Roving Mars" last month, I asked whether going down that road toward robotic telepresence and virtual-reality space experience would be worthwhile. "That would be the next best thing to being there," Dave Long of Wrightwood, Calif., wrote in reply. "When do we start?"

The other feedback was similarly enthusiastic — indicating that even if the wider moviegoing public isn't ready for a blockbuster based on space science, there'd still be a strong niche market for virtual exploration. Here's a selection of the e-mail:

Demetrio Zourarakis, Ph.D., remote sensing and GIS analyst, Frankfort, Ky.: "People have a hard time imagining these days — it seems like machines do the 'fantasizing' for us with ever-increasing frequency. Visualizing new worlds, by 'immersion' exercises such as 3-D virtual landscapes, is an invaluable tool to capture the imagination of the new generations, who, unlike us, will have the chance to set foot on new worlds. Only by seeing with the mind's eye the new unexplored universe that waits for us will we be able to yearn for the new frontier and abandon our cozy (?) cradle."Peter: "I've been waiting for this reality since the moon landing — yes, I would pay to be able to cruise the moon or Mars or any other planet or moon. Just say when and I'll be in the line to go."Claude M. Laird, Ph.D., Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Kansas: "Yes! I absolutely would pay to go see any Imax or big-screen movie (especially 3-D) involving Mars, the moon, other planets, the cosmos, etc. I would also try to bring as many family and friends as possible. I very much hope the IMAX Mars Rovers movie is a big success and that more of this sort of thing is done in the future. It might serve to make the public even more aware and supportive of space science."Philip Horzempa, Syracuse, N.Y.: "I firmly believe that NASA needs to devote much more energy to delivering high-definition photos and videos to the public. In fact, in some cases, I believe that these P.R. visuals should trump science data. I say this as a science teacher.  I love science, but scientists will lose public support if the public doesn't feel a sense of ownership of the space agency. Early in 2005, at an exploration symposium, James Cameron, a big space fan, stated that the pictures are NASA's most important product.  I heartily agree and feel that a high-definition, 3-D, virtual-reality space experience is something that I would consider paying for. I think that many other citizens would, too."Darren Casella: "...A 'Cosmos'-style production featuring segments on each area NASA is doing science in — along with an explanation of why it's important and how it's being done — would do much to fuel the passions of future science students everywhere. For my money, the science has to take a front seat in the presentation. That's one of the main reasons why 'Cosmos' worked so well and all the others since haven't. The main reason, though, was Carl Sagan."

Jan. 26, 2006 |
Deep subjects on the scientific Web:
New Scientist: Gravity theory dispenses with dark matterCosmic Variance: The future of the universe Spanish saliva may reveal real Columbus
Wired: Buddha on the brain

Jan. 25, 2006 |
Prime time for Saturn: This week promises the year's best viewing of Saturn, which reaches opposition on Friday night. "Opposition" doesn't mean that the Saturnians are getting ready to invade — just that the ringed planet is directly opposite the sun as seen from Earth.

At its closest, Saturn will be 755 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers) from Earth, and every night after Friday, Earth will be farther and farther away, reducing the apparent size of Saturn's disk. The view during this opposition won't be quite as good as it's been in recent years; 2003 was the peak year, because of the relative positions of Earth and Saturn in their orbits. Nevertheless, it's a good time to get out the telescope and see if you can make out Saturn's rings — or get in touch with your local astronomical society to arrange a viewing.

The planet should be visible as a bright yellowish "star," high in eastern skies by about 9 p.m. local time and at its zenith at midnight. You can get further tips and fun facts from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Astronomy magazine as well as Sky and Telescope.

If your skies are cloudy on Friday night, don't fret: The view will be pretty much as good for months to come. And there are plenty more planetary highlights to look forward to. Check out this viewing guide from's Joe Rao for the year's overview.

There are also new Saturnian wonders every day on the Web, courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft. It's always worth checking out NASA's Cassini-Huygens Web page, the Cassini imaging team's Web site and the latest from the European Space Agency.

Jan. 25, 2006 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Laughter paves the way for romance (via GeekPress)
Discover Magazine: Live rats and dead resolutions
January's Mini-Annals of Improbable Research
The Onion: Nation's snowmen march against global warming

Jan. 24, 2006 |
Name those spaceships: When future astronauts go to the moon, will they blast off from Earth in an Antares spaceship, powered by an Ares rocket — then ride an Artemis lander down to the lunar surface?

Those are the suggested spacecraft names that have surfaced in reports attributed variously to sources close to NASA or internal agency documents. Under this scheme, the Crew Launch Vehicle, or CLV rocket, would be named after the Greek god of war, Ares. The two-stage rocket that has been nicknamed the "single stick" or the "shaft" would be the Ares 1. The in-line heavy-lift version, suitable for trips to the moon or Mars, would be the Ares 5 — echoing the name that was given to the heavy-lifter in the Mars Direct scheme for missions to the Red Planet.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV capsule, would take on the name Antares — the "rival to Mars" — with each mission getting a number, just as Apollo missions did. The Lunar Surface Access Module, or LSAM moon lander, would be called Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the moon (and the twin sister of Apollo).

So how close is this scheme to NASA's formal blessing? Some of the reports make it sound as if these are the current favorites. But Scott Horowitz, the agency's associate administrator for exploration systems, says Ares, Antares and Artemis don't have any special status as far as he's concerned.

"We haven't picked any names for the vehicles yet, but it sounds like something my kid would come up with," Horowitz told me today. "All their names start with an A."

Horowitz, a former astronaut himself, said in a telephone interview that the subject has been an "item of discussion," but there aren't yet any favorites:

"I've got lists and lists and lists of hundreds and hundreds of names from lots of different people from different times. This is just among them. In fact, the launch vehicle’s naming goes all the way back to books written on the subject 10 or 20 years ago. We haven’t raised any particular names, but that’s something we probably need to put on our list of things to do. People are tired of the acronyms, I think."

So there may still be time to weigh in with your suggestions. The last time we played "Name That Spaceship," Mark Whittington started us off with Ares and Artemis, and Phoenix emerged as a favorite. But there were plenty of other great suggestions.

This time around, we can focus more fully on the crew spaceship (CEV, analogous to the Apollo spacecraft), the rocket (CLV, analogous to the Saturn rocket) and the lunar lander (LSAM, analogous to the Apollo program's Lunar Module). Are Antares, Ares and Artemis the perfect monikers, or do you think we can do better? NBC News' James Oberg suggests giving the CLV a super-strong name like Hercules (the mythological hero, not the transport plane) or Conan (the barbarian, not the talk-show host). Send along your suggestions, and let's get those puppies named!

Jan. 24, 2006 |
Worlds collide: NASA says it is lending a rocket engine to Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd. to use in its suborbital spaceship, a Lear executive jet that is being converted into a rocket plane. From the news release:

"NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, and the company signed a Space Act Agreement for use of an RS-88 engine in tests of its Rocketplane XP vehicle for three years. The company will provide NASA with design, test and operational information from the development."

Last year, Rocketplane tried to negotiate for the use of an RS-88 with the engine's manufacturer, Rocketdyne, but was told it would have to pay $100 million just to cover the insurance for the ground-testing phase. At the time, Rocketplane said that was a "huge stumbling block," but NASA apparently came to the rescue. NASA's RS-88 engine was built for Lockheed Martin's Pad Abort Demonstration vehicle, a part of the Orbital Space Plane project that was superseded by the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Rocketplane is aiming to start offering suborbital space tours next year — a timetable that makes it one of the contenders in the commercial space race. The company's competitors might well wonder just what NASA can do for them.

Jan. 24, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): How to spot a scientific fake
Arkansas Daily Blog: About that Walking like a penguinNew Scientist: Spacecraft skin 'heals' itselfNJIT: Less sunlight, higher temperatures? It's a paradox

Jan. 23, 2006 |
Spots on space shots: If you've got $20 million you're dying to spend on a trip to the international space station, it looks like you're just going to have to wait a couple of years. The seats available for paying passengers on the station's Soyuz taxi spacecraft are being snapped up quickly, based on schedules that have been or are on the verge of being announced.

The Soyuz has three seats, and under the current system, two of them are occupied by professional space station crew members — leaving one extra seat to be sold either to national space agencies or private-sector fliers. There are just two Soyuz flights per year, generally scheduled in the spring and the fall.

Today, NASA and Russian space officials said the next Soyuz launch would be delayed for a week, until March 30. Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes is due to join the space station's Expedition 13 crew members, NASA's Jeffrey Williams and Russia's Pavel Vinogradov, on that flight and then fly back down to Earth with Expedition 12's returning crew eight days later. Brazil's space agency is reportedly paying the going rate of "about $20 million" for the round trip.

Japanese millionaire entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto has been penciled in for the next opening, coming up in September. Enomoto has already been to Russia's Star City complex for some training and is due to return there for another stint sometime in the next few weeks, says Stacey Tearne, spokeswoman for Virginia-based Space Adventures.

It's worth noting that Enomoto's old boss at the Japanese company LiveDoor, Takafumi Horie, was arrested today in connection with a financial fraud probe — but there's no indication that Enomoto is in any way implicated in the investigation. Horie himself has a spaceflight connection: Last year, he was named to the board of the X Prize Foundation and announced that he was setting up his own space travel company.

Moving on to 2007, at least one of the open seats is being held for yet another of Space Adventures' would-be space passengers. "We hope to announce, in the next few weeks, the identity of the next spaceflight participant," Tearne told me today.

She said Space Adventures, which has helped put three millionaires into orbit already (Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth and Greg Olsen), is also gearing up to announce the selection of a suborbital spaceport site "in the coming months."

In the spring of 2008, South Korea currently has dibs on the open seat, according to an announcement issued in Moscow today.

If $20 million is a bit too rich for you, you could shell out $3,750 for a zero-gravity flight (the price tag has risen in the past year and a half). You could even try your hand at winning a free zero-G flight in Martha Stewart's "Out-of-This-World" contest. There's one more day to enter.

Jan. 23, 2006 |
The rocket report: A number of readers responded to last week's reports on the Rocket Racing League's future home and the development of methane-powered rocket engines. Here's a sampling of the feedback:

Angie Fulmer: "... Did you know that Orion Propulsion / HMX built a 100-pound methane-oxygen engine (twice the thrust as XCOR’s) and has a total testing time of 90 seconds around the same time frame? Orion was also recently awarded a NASA 2005 SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research grant] for the oxygen / methane thruster work."Nathan Morrison: "I am so happy to hear you discussing methane propulsion.  You covered the topic very well.  I did want to mention, though, that methane is an extremely abundant resource throughout the entire solar system, not just on Mars. ... Once a substantial space station (with launch facilities) has been established at a stable Earth-moon Lagrange point, methane, oxygen and hydrogen look like the most abundant and easily acquired fuels in the solar system.  Once we are up there, it will be easier and less expensive (in energy used to energy gained) to acquire our fuel from other bodies with smaller G forces than Earth.  This, as you know, is because of the extreme amount of energy lost in escaping Earth’s ‘gravity well.’  Missions like Stardust and NEAR set a precursor for larger fuel-collecting missions to come.  Once the mentioned station has been established, the cost-effectiveness ‘point of no return’ will be crossed, and methane will look like a much better option for human fuel usage. ..."  Anonymous, Charlottesville, Va.: "OK, rocket-powered planes have been around since the early ’50s. Rocket engines are less efficient than jets when operating in the lower atmosphere, and most of these planes will be structurally limited to subsonic speed. What exactly is the point of developing racing planes with rocket engines? They sure the heck will not contribute to developments for flying into space."

It's true that the Rocket Racing League's X-Racers should by no means be considered spaceships, or even planes on a par with fighter jets. The X-Racers are designed to travel at speeds of up to 300 mph (not exactly pushing the supersonic envelope) and up to altitudes of about a mile (5,000 feet or 1,500 meters). In the minds of the idea's backers, the connection to spaceflight is that the revenue from a NASCAR-style operation could boost the fortunes of rocket companies — setting the stage for different breeds of private-sector spaceships.

Jan. 23, 2006 |
Languages lost and found: Friday's report on the Hollywood-inspired reconstruction of the language spoken by Pocahontas and her people sparked e-mail letters setting me straight on the status of tribal languages. To be sure, Virginia Algonquian isn't the only language that's undergoing a revival:

Douglas Lloyd Buchholz, Lancaster, N.H.: "Western Abenaki isn't dead yet, White Man. So don't think that there are only Eastern Wabanakian language dialects left in the Northeast. Aln8bak are very much alive and 'quietly' reviving our language skills too."Dennis McClain-Furmanski, "'What would Pocahontas say?' Probably the first thing she would say is, 'My name is Matoaka.' Her nickname, Pocahontas, is a pet name that came from her father. He was probably saying, 'And this is my spoiled brat.'Jon, Austin, Texas: ""I think that the writer should realize, we are Native Americans, not Indians. Indians are from India ... so get it right. And for those of you who didn't know: We weren't discovered. America was here all along, and the native people were here long before that Columbus guy."

The Associated Press stylebook, which is the law of the land around here, favors the term "American Indian." I've amended the item to conform to style. One of the books on my reading list is "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" by Charles C. Mann, and among other things Mann explains why "Indian" is often preferred over "Native American" nowadays. He also reviews the Pocahontas story from Powhatan's point of view, discussing how the English visitors figured into Algonquian political machinations.

Just for a change of pace, let's make "1491" this month's recommendation in the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, even though it doesn't exactly fit the "used book" mold because it was published so recently. And if you're looking for roundups of tribal news on the Net, check out as well as Indian Country Today — which is one of the content providers for our "Race in America" section.

Jan. 23, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: Is anybody out there?Popular Science: Buzz Aldrin's roadmap to MarsBBC: Acupuncture 'deactivates the brain'Scientific American: In Darwin's footsteps

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