Tag Archives: Mars

Mars rover update: November 14, 2016

Curiosity

Curiosity looking south, Sol 1516

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my last update on November 3rd, Curiosity has reached the region of sand dunes and has started to pick its way through it. The panorama above was created using images from the rover’s left navigation camera, taken on Sol 1516. It looks south, with Mount Sharp rising on the left.

That same day Curiosity also used its mast camera to zoom in on the canyon gap in the center of the panorama. The first image below is the wider mast camera shot, with the an outline showing the even closer zoom-in below that.
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MRO color images of Schiaparelli crash site

Schiaparelli crash site

The image above, cropped from a wider image released today by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team, shows the Schiaparelli impact sites in color and in very high resolution. There are also high resolution images of the heat shield and parachute/back shell. As they note in describing the above image,

Where the lander module struck the ground, dark radial patterns that extend from a dark spot are interpreted as “ejecta,” or material thrown outward from the impact, which may have excavated a shallow crater. From the earlier image, it was not clear whether the relatively bright pixels and clusters of pixels scattered around the lander module’s impact site are fragments of the module or image noise. Now it is clear that at least the four brightest spots near the impact are not noise. These bright spots are in the same location in the two images and have a white color, unusual for this region of Mars. The module may have broken up at impact, and some fragments might have been thrown outward like impact ejecta.

In other words, the lander crashed hard when it hit the ground, throwing pieces and ground material everywhere.

Curiosity finds a meteorite

The Curiosity science team have identified and now analyzed a nickel-iron meteorite that Curiosity spotted on October 27.

Scientists of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project, which operates the rover, first noticed the odd-looking rock in images taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) at at a site the rover reached by an Oct. 27 drive. “The dark, smooth and lustrous aspect of this target, and its sort of spherical shape attracted the attention of some MSL scientists when we received the Mastcam images at the new location,” said ChemCam team member Pierre-Yves Meslin, at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), of France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Toulouse, France.

ChemCam found iron, nickel and phosphorus, plus lesser ingredients, in concentrations still being determined through analysis of the spectrum of light produced from dozens of laser pulses at nine spots on the object. The enrichment in both nickel and phosphorus at some of the same points suggests the presence of an iron-nickel-phosphide mineral that is rare except in iron-nickel meteorites, Meslin said.

The find is not unprecedented but it is interesting nonetheless.

Mars rover update: November 3, 2016

Curiosity

Post updated: See last paragraph in Curiosity section.

Curiosity location 1507

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

After spending almost a month on the flats south of Murray Buttes, during which the rover drilled another hole, in the past week Curiosity has finally resumed its journey south toward the slopes of Mount Sharp and the sand dune area that it must cross to get there.

Unfortunately, NASA has decided to change how it shows the rover’s progress, and these changes seem to me to be a clever and careful effort to make it more difficult for the public to make educated guesses about where the rover might be heading in the very near future. The image to the right is the cropped inset showing the rover’s recent travels that is part of a new a larger image that puts this inset in the context of the rover’s entire journey. This has replaced the wider orbital mosaic that they used to provide (see for example my September 27, 2016 rover update) that gave a very good view of the entire terrain surrounding the rover from which a reasonable estimate of its future path could be guessed.
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New details emerge of Schiaparelli crash site

Schiaparelli crash site

A new high resolution image from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HIRISE camera, reduced in resolution on the right, confirms that Schiaparelli crashed into the ground on October 19.

The scene shown by HiRISE includes three locations where hardware reached the ground. A dark, roughly circular feature is interpreted as where the lander itself struck. A pattern of rays extending from the circle suggests that a shallow crater was excavated by the impact, as expected given the premature engine shutdown. About 0.8 mile (1.4 kilometers) eastward, an object with several bright spots surrounded by darkened ground is likely the heat shield. About 0.8 mile (1.4 kilometers) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are interpreted as the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell to which the parachute was attached.

The center insert is a close-up of the impact site on the left, which clearly shows that the lander hit the ground hard, producing impact ejecta. That the rays are somewhat asymmetric also suggests that Schiaparellit hit the ground at an oblique angle.

Schiaparelli failure focuses in on altimeter data

The investigation into the landing failure last week of the ExoMars 2016 lander, Schiaparelli, is now focusing on a failure in the spacecraft’s altitude software.

The most likely culprit is a flaw in the craft’s software or a problem in merging the data coming from different sensors, which may have led the craft to believe it was lower in altitude than it really was, says Andrea Accomazzo, ESA’s head of solar and planetary missions. Accomazzo says that this is a hunch; he is reluctant to diagnose the fault before a full post-mortem has been carried out. But if he is right, that is both bad and good news.

European-designed computing, software and sensors are among the elements of the lander that are to be reused on the ExoMars 2020 landing system, which, unlike Schiaparelli, will involve a mixture of European and Russian technology. But software glitches should be easier to fix than a fundamental problem with the landing hardware, which ESA scientists say seems to have passed its test with flying colours. “If we have a serious technological issue, then it’s different, then we have to re-evaluate carefully. But I don’t expect it to be the case,” says Accomazzo.

MRO images Schiaparelli on Mars

before and after Schiaparelli

A comparison of images taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter before and after Schiaparelli’s failed attempt to land on Mars have revealed changes that are likely the lander on the surface. The image on the right is a composite that I’ve made showing the two images. The black spot near the top and the white spot near the bottom are not in the first image.

It is thought that the white spot is likely Schiaparelli’s parachute, while the dark spot is thought to be the lander’s impact point.

The larger dark spot near the upper edge of the enlargement was likely formed by the Schiaparelli lander. The spot is elliptical, about 50 by 130 feet (15 by 40 meters) in size, and is probably too large to have been made by the impact of the heat shield.

The large size of the dark spot suggests that the lander hit the ground hard enough to create this large scar.

Did Viking discover life on Mars?

Link here. The article provides a very detailed review of the conflicting results from the various 1970s Viking lander experiments, one of which strongly suggested the presence of microorganisms.

Overall, these life-detection experiments produced surprising and contradictory results. One experiment, the Labeled Release (LR) experiment, showed that the Martian soil tested positive for metabolism—a sign that, on Earth, would almost certainly suggest the presence of life. However, a related experiment found no trace of organic material, suggesting the absence of life. With no organic substances, what could be, or seem to be, metabolizing?

In the forty years since these experiments, scientists have been unable to reconcile the conflicting results, and the general consensus is that the Viking landers found no conclusive evidence of life on Mars. However, a small minority of scientists argues that the Viking results were positive for life on Mars.

The contradictory Viking results have never been fully explained. Many theories have been proposed, ranging from the chemical to the biological, but none have satisfied anyone.

Did Opportunity see Schiaparelli?

Opportunity image of Schiaparelli?

Because Schiaparelli was aimed at a landing site somewhat close to the Mars rover Opportunity, the science team aimed the rover’s panoramic camera at the sky yesterday, taking fourteen pictures in the hope of capturing the lander as it came down. Of those fourteen images, the image on the right, reduced in resolution, is the only one that shows that bright streak in the upper right.

close-up of streak

Though this streak might be an artifact, I do not think so. To the left is a close-up from the full resolution image, showing the streak in detail. That doesn’t look like an artifact. It still could be a meteorite, but I also think that doubtful. The coincidence of a meteorite flashing across the sky at the same exact moment Opportunity is looking to photograph Schiaparelli’s landing is too unlikely.

If this is Schiaparelli, expect a press release from NASA in the next few days.

Schiaparelli landing apparently a failure

This report from russianspaceweb.com provides some details about the apparent landing failure of the European Mars probe Schiaparelli on Wednesday.

The very preliminary analysis of the data revealed a number of serious problems in the final phase of the parachute descent. The telemetry showed that the back heat shield holding the parachute had been ejected earlier than scheduled — 50 seconds instead of 30 seconds before the touchdown. Also, the lander was apparently descending at a speed higher than planned. There were also indications that the soft-landing engines had fired for only three or four seconds and all communications from the lander were cut 19 seconds later, or shortly before touchdown. By that time, Schiaparelli’s landing radar had been activated.

It appears the parachutes were released too soon so that they did not function properly and slow the spacecraft down enough. When the retro-rockets fired the spacecraft was probably also closer to the ground than planned and falling too fast, so they failed to stop it from impacting the surface hard and prematurely.

Fate of Schiaparelli remains unknown

While Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has successfully gone into orbit around Mars, it remains unknown whether the lander Schiaparelli was able today to land successfully on the surface.

The carrier signal from Schiaparelli recorded by Mars Express abruptly ended shortly before landing, just as the beacon tone received by a ground-based radio telescope in India stopped in real-time earlier today.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, just gave an update on the situation. “We saw the signal through the atmospheric phase — the descent phase. At a certain point, it stopped,” Ferri said. “This was unexpected, but we couldn’t conclude anything from that because this very weak signal picked up on the ground was coming from an experimental tool.

“We (waited) for the Mars Express measurement, which was taken in parallel, and it was of the same kind. It was only recording the radio signal. The Mars Express measurement came at 1830 (CEST) and confirmed exactly the same: the signal went through the majority of the descent phase, and it stopped at a certain point that we reckon was before the landing.

“There could be many many reasons for that,” Ferri said. “It’s clear these are not good signs, but we will need more information.”

Mars rover update

Emily Lakdawalla at Sky & Telescope today provides an update of the two Mars rovers, but takes a different approach than I have. While I have been focusing on tracking where the rovers are going and what they are doing, she gives a very nice overview of each rovers’ condition, what instruments continue to work and what have failed.

I myself have not done a new rover update since October 6 for several reasons. First and foremost, neither rover has gone anywhere since my last report. Opportunity is still sitting on Spirit Mound, studying the rocks there. Curiosity is still in the flats south of Murray Buttes, preparing to drill another hole.

Secondly, there was a delay this past weekend in downloading data, especially from Curiosity. I strongly suspect that the delay was simply because the Deep Space Network was being used to help with communications between Europe and its ExoMars probes, now set to arrive at Mars tomorrow. When the lander Schiaparelli separated from the orbiter on Sunday they had had some initial communications problems, and it is likely that though ESA was using its own deep space network, they also enlisted ours to help.

Thirdly, I have been very tied up trying to finish my cave project monograph. This is done now, so I finally have more time to work on Behind the Black.

Mars in ultraviolet

Data from the Mars orbiter MAVEN have given scientists their first detailed look at the red planet in ultraviolet wavelengths.

New global images of Mars from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission being led by CU Boulder show the ultraviolet glow from the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail, revealing dynamic, previously invisible behavior.

They include the first images of “nightglow” that can be used to show how winds circulate at high altitudes. Additionally, dayside ultraviolet imagery from the spacecraft shows how ozone amounts change over the seasons and how afternoon clouds form over giant Martian volcanoes. The images were taken by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) on MAVEN.

The build-up of clouds over Mars’ four big volcanoes is especially interesting, since it is thought this water vapor likely comes from underground ice left over from glaciers that were once on the mountains’ slopes. A very short video of that build up can be seen, below the fold.
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ExoMars 2016 in detail

This Nature article provides a nice summary of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission that on Wednesday will try to place a lander on Mars as well as put an orbiter in orbit.

Neither probe is going to provide many exciting photos. The orbiter, dubbed boringly the Trace Gas Orbiter, is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere, while the lander, Schiaparelli, is essentially a technology test mission for planning and designing what Europe and Russia hope will be a more ambitious lander/orbiter mission in 2020.

Anyone expecting spectacular pictures from Schiaparelli itself might be disappointed — photos will be limited to 15 black-and-white shots of the Martian surface from the air, intended to help piece together the craft’s trajectory. No photos will be taken on the surface, because the lander lacks a surface camera.

Schiaparelli’s instruments will study the Martian atmosphere, including the possible global dust storm that might happen this month but so far has not yet appeared. The instruments will also be able to detect lightning, should it exist on Mars.

Schiaparelli lander successfully separates from orbiter

In preparation for its Mars landing on October 19, Schiaparelli has successfully separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission.

They had some initial communications issues soon after separation, all of which have now been resolved.

ExoMars 2016 bearing down on Mars

This article provides a detailed look at Sunday’s arrival of ExoMars 2016 at Mars.

If all goes right the Schiaparelli lander will soft land on the surface while the Trace Gas Orbiter will enter an initial 185 by 60,000 mile orbit, which will slowly be adjusted so that by January it can begin its atmospheric research.

Though the Russian contribution to this mission was only the rocket that sent it to Mars, if the mission succeeds it will be the first time any Mars mission with major Russian participation has succeeded. The failure rate for any Russian effort to go to Mars has been 100%. And it hasn’t been because the missions have been particularly difficult. The majority of their failures occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, even as they were very successfully completing much harder lander missions to Venus.

It has almost as if there is a curse against any Russian attempt to visit the Red Planet. Hopefully, that curse will finally be broken on Sunday.

Opportunity to head into Endeavour Crater

The Opportunity science team has decided to next take the rover into the floor of Endeavour Crater.

The gully chosen as the next major destination slices west-to-east through the rim about half a mile (less than a kilometer) south of the rover’s current location. It is about as long as two football fields. “We are confident this is a fluid-carved gully, and that water was involved,” said Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. “Fluid-carved gullies on Mars have been seen from orbit since the 1970s, but none had been examined up close on the surface before. One of the three main objectives of our new mission extension is to investigate this gully. We hope to learn whether the fluid was a debris flow, with lots of rubble lubricated by water, or a flow with mostly water and less other material.”

The team intends to drive Opportunity down the full length of the gully, onto the crater floor. The second goal of the extended mission is to compare rocks inside Endeavour Crater to the dominant type of rock Opportunity examined on the plains it explored before reaching Endeavour.

If it is the gully I think, it is the slope visible in the panorama I created for this rover update two weeks ago. The science team has named the mound they have been studying Spirit Mound. The ridge line, visible in the panorama and to the south of the rover in the overhead view provided in the same September 27 rover update, has been dubbed Wharton Ridge. It is also possible that the entrance gully is the gully to the south of Wharton Ridge. Based on the information NASA has provided, I am not sure.

Either way, I had guessed that they would work their way south to Wharton Ridge along the edge of the crater rim, and then retreat away from the crater floor to do more study of the interior crater rim. It appears they have decided that the rover can safely descend the slope to enter the crater floor itself, and they aren’t going to wait any longer to do it.

Mars rover update: October 6, 2016

Curiosity

Post updated. See last paragraph of Curiosity section.

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity looking west, Sol 1475

Having moved south from Murray Buttes, the Curiosity science team has decided [see Sol 1473] that they will veer the rover to the southwest a bit, partly to check out some interesting features but also I think as part of a long term plan to find the best route through an area of sand dunes that blocks their path to the more interesting landscape at the base of Mount Sharp. The panorama above, created by me from images taken by the rover’s mast camera on Sol 1475, was taken to scope out this route, and is indicated below the fold in the overview released earlier this week by the rover science team and annotated by me to indicate the direction of this panorama as well as the rover’s present location. (Be sure to click on the panorama above to see it at full resolution.)
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Predicting the next Martian global dust storm

Scientists think they now have a method to predict the next global-wide dust storm on Mars, and based on this theory they predict it will happen very soon.

Global dust storms on Mars could soon become more predictable — which would be a boon for future astronauts there — if the next one follows a pattern suggested by those in the past. A published prediction, based on this pattern, points to Mars experiencing a global dust storm in the next few months. “Mars will reach the midpoint of its current dust storm season on October 29th of this year. Based on the historical pattern we found, we believe it is very likely that a global dust storm will begin within a few weeks or months of this date,” James Shirley, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

This is most interesting because my next rover update, later today or tomorrow, is going to note the increasingly dusty atmosphere in Gale Crater. It isn’t a global dust storm, but maybe it is indicative of one that is about to happen.

Curiosity moves on

The Curiosity science team today put out press release summarizing what they have accomplished at Murray Buttes and what they hope to do next.

For those who have been reading my weekly rover updates on Behind the Black, most of this release will be old news. However, the release did provide the following interesting geological information that supplements what I have been reporting:

This latest drill site — the 14th for Curiosity — is in a geological layer about 600 feet (180 meters) thick, called the Murray formation. Curiosity has climbed nearly half of this formation’s thickness so far and found it consists primarily of mudstone, formed from mud that accumulated at the bottom of ancient lakes. The findings indicate that the lake environment was enduring, not fleeting. For roughly the first half of the new two-year mission extension, the rover team anticipates investigating the upper half of the Murray formation. “We will see whether that record of lakes continues further,” Vasavada said. “The more vertical thickness we see, the longer the lakes were present, and the longer habitable conditions existed here. Did the ancient environment change over time? Will the type of evidence we’ve found so far transition to something else?”

The “Hematite Unit” and “Clay Unit” above the Murray formation were identified from Mars orbiter observations before Curiosity’s landing. Information about their composition, from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, made them high priorities as destinations for the rover mission. Both hematite and clay typically form in wet environments.

It also appears that the problems they had while doing the last drill hole were related to the electrical design flaw of Curiosity’s drill. It caused a short circuit this time, which is worrisome based on what I understand because this design flaw has the capability of shorting out the rover’s entire electrical system, ending the mission.

I will post a new rover update later this week, once I get back from Illinois.

Mars rover update: Sept 27, 2016

Curiosity

Curiosity traverse map, Sol 1471

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see this post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the past week Curiosity finally left Murray Buttes and began moving south towards Mount Sharp, and, for at least one day, I thought tracking the rover’s movements might become easier. Early in the week the science team published an updated overhead traverse map that not only showed the topographical elevation contour lines for the surrounding terrain, but also included a blue line roughly indicating the rover’s future route. For reasons I do not understand, however, they only did this for one day, and then went back to the un-annotated traverse maps they had been using previously. I have therefore revised the most recent traverse map, shown on the right, to include these contour lines as well as the planned future route. The contour lines are hard to read on the full image, but below the fold on the right is a zoomed in view of Curiosity’s position as it left Murray Buttes, which shows the rover’s elevation at about 4376 meters below the peak of Mount Sharp. This means the rover has gained about 1,150 meters, or about 3,775 feet, since its landing, but only 50 meters or about 150 feet since March of this year. It is still not on the mountain but in the low foothills at its base.
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An ancient volcanic mountain chain on Mars

Using data from Mars Odyssey scientists have determined that a mountain chain on Mars was likely created as a chain of volcanoes.

They analyzed the geography and mineralogy of this area they termed Greater Thaumasia, which is about the size of North America. They also studied the chemistry of this area based on Gamma Ray Spectrometer data collected by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, which was launched in 2001. What they found was the mountain ridge that outlines Greater Thaumasia was most likely created by a chain of volcanoes.

Their research also looked to see if water influenced the mountains’ formation and found no evidence for it. The mountain chain itself is south of the giant Valles Marineris canyons and southeast of the Tharsis region where Mars’ biggest four volcanoes are located.

Mars’ weird windblown surface

Wind scoured Martian surface

Cool image time! The image on the right, taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped from a wider view of a small crater and a small volcano caldera, certainly appears blurred and out of focus. Is MRO malfunctioning?

Nope. The blurring is actually an optical illusion caused almost entirely by our own assumptions of what a planet surface should look like combined with the alien processes occurring on Mars that have no equivalent here on Earth.

Below the fold is a wider view from the full image, showing the area of the cropped image to the right as well as the entire crater. Below that is another full resolution inset, this time showing the features on the crater rim that are sharp and stand out clearly. The blurriness of the rest of the image is not because the image is out-of-focus, but because a steady northwest-to- southeast wind has distorted everything in the same direction.
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An avalanche pile on Mars

Avalanche pile on Mars

Cool image time! The Mars Odyssey science team has released this very interesting image, cropped on the right, of an avalanche debris pile formed when the large section of cliff on the left broke off and collapsed into the valley below. The valley is called Tiu Valles and is located close to Mars’ equator.

The wide spread of the debris is an indication of several things. For one, it illustrates the light Martian gravity, which allowed the debris to flow much farther than it would have on Earth.

For another, the spread of the debris pile suggests to me that the material that fell was very crumbly. It might have been able to hold together as a cliff for a long time, but when it collapsed the material broke apart almost like sand. Think of a sand castle you might have built as a kid on the beach. With a little moisture you can pack the sand to form solid shapes, but if your shape breaks apart the sand falls not as large blocks but as crumbly soft and loose sand. That is what appears to have happened here.

There is also the suggestion to me that water might have been involved somehow in this collapse. I am not a geologist so this speculation on my part is very unreliable. However, the shape of the debris pile suggests a liquid flow. The flow itself wasn’t liquid, but liquid might have somehow been involved in causing this geological event. We would need a geologist however to clarify these guesses on my part.

Mars rover update: September 20, 2016

Opportunity comes first this time because it actually is more interesting.

Opportunity

For the overall context of Opportunity’s travels at Endeavour Crater, see this post, Opportunity’s future travels on Mars.

Having several choices on where to head, the Opportunity science team this week chose took what looks like the most daring route, heading almost due east towards the floor of Endeavour Crater. In fact, a review of their route and the images that the rover continues to take suggests that the panorama I created last week looked almost due east, not to the southeast as I had guessed. I have amended the most recent overhead traverse image, cropped and reduced below, to show what I now think that panorama was showing.
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New evidence of lakes and streams in Mars’ recent past

Using data from three different orbiters scientists have mapped out a region of lakes and streams on Mars that appear to have contained liquid water a billion years after the red planet is believed to have dried up.

To bracket the time period when the fresh shallow valleys in Arabia Terra formed, scientists started with age estimates for 22 impact craters in the area. They assessed whether or not the valleys carved into the blankets of surrounding debris ejected from the craters, as an indicator of whether the valleys are older or younger than the craters. They concluded that this fairly wet period on Mars likely occurred between two and three billion years ago, long after it is generally thought that most of Mars’ original atmosphere had been lost and most of the remaining water on the planet had frozen.

The characteristics of the valleys support the interpretation that the climate was cold: “The rate at which water flowed through these valleys is consistent with runoff from melting snow,” Wilson said, “These weren’t rushing rivers. They have simple drainage patterns and did not form deep or complex systems like the ancient valley networks from early Mars.”

This region, Arabia Terra, is the same area where scientists have found fossilized rivers.

A Mars Rover Update

I have decided to continue my Mars rover updates, and make them a regular mid-week feature here on Behind the Black. This is the first.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see this post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my last updates here and here, Curiosity has moved south through the gap between buttes to exit the Murray Butte area. The initial slopes of Mount Sharp lie ahead, an open road with no apparent rough terrain to slow travel.

Doing science however does slow travel, and for good reason. Once through the gap the science team decided to swung the rover west and up against the base of the gap’s western butte, rather than immediately head south to climb the mountain. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image below, cropped and reduced, illustrates this path.
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