Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 begin 12th lunar day

Chinese engineers have reactivated both their lunar lander, Chang’e-4, and its rover, Yutu-2, for their twelve lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

The lander woke up at 5:03 p.m. Thursday (Beijing Time), and the rover, Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2), awoke at 0:51 a.m. the same day. Both are in normal working order, according to the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration.

No word on where Yutu-2 will be sent over then next two weeks.

Posting was light during the day today because Diane and I were on a hike that I needed to do for the upcoming planned second edition of my hiking guidebook, Circuit Hikes of Southern Arizona. My boss (me) allowed me to go, since this hike was not pure pleasure, but reconnaissance for one of my books.

A house in the forest

An evening pause: They call this an off-grid house, but that really isn’t true. Though he isn’t linked to either an electric or water utility, pay close attention to the amount of technology he uses to make the house and living there functional and practical.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating and educational to see some of the tricks that people will do to live as they wish.

Hat tip Cotour.

Mid-latitude Martian glacier?

Glacier on Mars?
Click for full image.

Cool image time! I have posted a lot of Mars photographs in the past few months showing possible glaciers in the mid-latitudes of Mars, where scientists think they have identified a lot of such features. Today is another, but unlike many of the previous examples, this particular feature more closely resembles a typical Earth glacier than almost any I have so far posted.

Based on the image’s title, “Lineated Valley Fill in Northern Mid-Latitudes,” given by the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I suspect that it remains unproven that these are features of buried glacial ice. Thus, they use a more vague descriptive term, lineated, to avoid pre-judging what these features are.

Nonetheless, a glacier is sure what this lineated valley fill looks like. See for example the Concordia confluence of two glaciers in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan, near the world’s second highest mountain, K2. Though obviously not the same, you can see many similarities between this Martian feature and Concordia.

MRO has taken only three photographs of this particular valley, with one image useless because it was taken during a dust storm. Yet, the other good image, farther downstream in this valley, shows very similar features.

The valley itself is formed from chaos terrain, located in the transition zone between the southern cratered highlands and the flat northern lowlands where a possible intermittent ocean might have once existed. Thus, for buried ice to be here is quite possible.

Virgin Galactic stock continues its plunge

Virgin Galactic stock price, Nov 15 to Nov 21

Capitalism in space: The stock price for Virgin Galactic has continued to fall since it went public on October 28.

The graph on the right shows the trend in the last week, dropping from about $9.50 to $8.75. The stock had opened in October at $12.93 and quickly dropped to that $9.50 number. The more recent drop occurred after the company released its first quarterly report on November 13.

At some point the stock price will stabilize, though I suspect it will have to drop a bit more before that happens. It will then probably rise if or when they finally launch some flights, with paying passengers on board.

Unearthly pit in Martian northern icecap

Giant pit in Martian North polar icecap
Click for full image.

Cool image time! It is spring in the Martian north, and thus the Sun has risen and remains in the sky for most if not all of each day, circling the horizon. As such, it illuminates polar icecap features that are strange and weird and hard to decipher based on our expectations here on Earth.

The photograph to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a good example. It was taken on September 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and shows a pit in the outer regions of the polar icecap, an area where that water icecap remains relatively stable, but that is also at a low enough latitude that summer sunlight can cause some erosion and sublimation of the ice.

The bottom of the pit is the center of the bullseye, with the layered features in the surrounding walls showing the many layers inside the icecap, built up over centuries, then slowly revealed as the ice in this pit slowly sublimated away.

You can get a better sense of what you are looking at by the overview map below.
» Read more

ULA backing off from reuseablity and Vulcan upgrades?

Capitalism in space: According to this Space News story today, it appears that ULA is shifting away from building a major upgrade to the upper stage of its Vulcan rocket, even as it also appears to be backing off from pushing plans to recover and reuse its first stage engines.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told SpaceNews by email that the company still plans to introduce an “advanced upper stage,” but only after Vulcan flies. Rye also declined to provide a specific timeline.

Similarly, ULA officials also refused to give a timeline for when they will begin recovering Vulcan’s first stage engines and reusing them.

Right now the company expects to launch the first iteration of Vulcan, using as Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage, sometime in 2021. It also appears that those first launches will not recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

In the long run, I do not see how ULA can compete. They certainly appear hesitant about introducing any new innovations or upgrades to Vulcan, which will result in an expendable rocket that costs far too much.

In fact, the arrival of this apparent timidity seems to have occurred almost to the day the company accepted a development contract for Vulcan from the Air Force. Thus, it increasingly appears that it is our federal government that is squelching the company’s creativity.

Why am I not surprised?

SpaceX ‘s decision to slash prices/provide reliable launch schedule upends smallsat industry

Capitalism in space: Apparently SpaceX’s decision in August to further slash its launch prices for smallsats while also establishing a regular launch schedule is causing major shifts in that industry.

From the first link::

The revamped smallsat rideshare program, the company announced late Aug. 28, will provide launch opportunities at least once per month starting in March 2020, at a cost of $1 million for a 200-kilogram smallsat.

From the second link:

With the new SpaceX price list, the cost of reaching low Earth orbit falls so dramatically “you should select the cheapest launcher even if it does not go exactly where you need it and then use propulsion to go where you need to be,” Henri said. “From a total system cost standpoint, that will make the most sense.”

This situation is comparable to the shifts that occurred in the ship business when its technology changed from sails to engines. Sailing ships generally did not sail on a schedule. Instead, they sat at port until they filled their cargo holds, then waited for favorable weather before sailing. Customers could only wait.

Once ships were powered this all changed. Ship companies established firm schedules so customers knew exactly when their cargo would ship. This also led to a reduction in the price of shipping.

SpaceX’s ability to reuse its first stage often and quickly is now allowing them to treat the Falcon 9 rocket more like a powered ship rather than a sailing ship. Rather than only launching when they’ve filled their cargo capacity, they can afford to launch on a regular and reliable schedule, allowing customers to jump on board at their own convenience.

India confirms details of Vikram’s crash on Moon

India’s government has finally officially admitted that its Vikram lunar lander crashed in September.

In a written answer to a question posed to the Department of Space in Lok Sabha, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Jitendra Singh said the “reduction in velocity” of the Vikram lander during the final phase of its descent on the moon’s surface “was more than the designed value”. As a result, Vikram “hard-landed” on the moon “within 500 metres of the designated landing site”, he said.

…“The first phase of descent was performed nominally from an altitude of 30 km to 7.4 km above the moon surface. The velocity was reduced from 1,683 m/s to 146 m/s. During the second phase of descent, the reduction in velocity was more than the designed value. Due to this deviation, the initial conditions at the start of the fine braking phase (final phase below 7.4 km altitude) were beyond the designed parameters. As a result, Vikram hard-landed within 500 m of the designated landing site,” the minister said in a written answer in the Lok Sabha.

Except for the detail that they think Vikram landed within 500 meters of its planned landing site, this answer really doesn’t tell us much new. It was very obvious during the landing that the spacecraft was traveling too fast as it began its final braking phase, and that it then descended much too fast thereafter.

In fact, the couched language and the unwillingness so far of ISRO, India’s space agency, to provide a detailed report on the failure does not reflect well on them. This kind of cutting edge engineering requires a hard kind of intellectual honesty. They have so far not shown that kind of honesty in their response to this failure.

Explosion during Starship tank tests

During tests today of SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 test prototype there was a sudden explosion, damaging the spacecraft. Below is a clip from today’s live stream showing the explosion.

They had been doing a variety of tank and venting tests for the past day. (The link includes a video showing the first pressurization test yesterday.)

The Mk1 (Mark 1) was being built with an initial hoped-for schedule targeting the first orbital flights by next year. No one took that seriously, and today’s incident reinforces that skepticism. At the same time, SpaceX has routinely recovered very quickly from its engineering test failures, treating them as opportunities for improving their designs. It is for this reason that most knowledgeable observers of the company also expected any delays to that target schedule to never be very extended.

Moreover, earlier this week SpaceX revealed that it had already decided not to fly this version and proceed to their next version. A Mk2 version is being built in Florida, so in Boca Chica they will proceed to the Mk3, with the goal to get to build toward the final operational version, what Musk labeled the Mk5. Based on past SpaceX policy, however, expect them to begin commercial flights with the earlier versions as they upgrade to the Mk5.

UPDATE: It appears the explosion occurred during a maximum pressurization test, which means they now have data telling them the limits of their tank design.

Astronomers think they have pinned down location of Supernova 1987a’s central star

More than three decades after Supernova 1987a erupted, becoming the first supernova in centuries visible to the naked eye, astronomers finally think they have narrowed the location of the neutron star remaining from that supernova.

Astronomers knew the object must exist but had always struggled to identify its location because of a shroud of obscuring dust. Now, a UK-led team thinks the remnant’s hiding place can be pinpointed from the way it’s been heating up that dust.

The researchers refer to the area of interest as “the blob”. “It’s so much hotter than its surroundings, the blob needs some explanation. It really stands out from its neighbouring dust clumps,” Prof Haley Gomez from Cardiff University told BBC News. “We think it’s being heated by the hot neutron star created in the supernova.”

It will still likely be 50 to 100 years before the dust clears enough for the neutron star itself to be visible.

Sierra Nevada updates Dream Chaser status, names its cargo module

Capitalism in space: In providing a detailed update in the construction of its reusable Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, Sierra Nevada yesterday revealed that it has named the small expendable cargo module that it will be attached to its Dream Chaser “Shooting Star.”

As part of Dream Chaser’s overall design, the vehicle itself does not contain the berthing port or solar arrays needed for it to perform its mission. Instead, those elements are mounted on what had been, before today, referred to as the cargo module – an element of Dream Chaser that now has a dedicated name: Shooting Star.

The name is a nod to the fact that it is the only part of Dream Chaser that is disposable and will burn up in the atmosphere as a streaking ball of fire – just like a shooting star.

The module itself, while containing the solar arrays and main propulsion elements for orbital maneuvering, will also be capable of transporting a large amount of internal cargo to the Station. It is also the part of Dream Chaser on which external cargo can be mounted for delivery and disposal of external elements that are no longer needed for the orbital outpost.

The article provides many details about the status of Dream Chaser that are worth reading, including noting its other potential uses beyond supplying ISS with cargo.

Blue Origin wins protest against Air Force

Capitalism in space: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s protest against the Air Force’s launch procurement rules that would have limited bidding on all launch contracts for the first half of the 2020s to only two companies.

In a “pre-award” protest, Blue Origin challenged the terms of a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force earlier this year for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which aims to award two contracts next year expected to cover 30 or more medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches the Air Force plans to conduct between 2022 and 2026.

Blue Origin, owned by founder Jeff Bezos, is one of four companies that submitted bids for the contracts by the Air Force’s Aug. 1 proposal deadline. The other three companies bidding for the contracts are Northrop Grumman and incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

After submitting its bid, Blue Origin filed a formal protest with the GAO arguing that several terms of the RFP unduly restrict competition, are ambiguous, or are inconsistent with customary commercial practice.

The GAO agreed.“GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable,” Patton said in the statement.

The Air Force’s plan here never made any sense at all. Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

This is good news for the entire American launch industry. It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer. It is also good news for the taxpayer, as the competition for business will certainly drive innovation and the lowering of launch prices.

NASA expands list of companies certified to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced that it is expanding the list of companies eligible to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts from 9 to 14.

From the NASA press release:

NASA has added five American companies to the pool of vendors that will be eligible to bid on proposals to provide deliveries to the surface of the Moon through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

The additions, which increase the list of CLPS participants on contract to 14, expand NASA’s work with U.S. industry to build a strong marketplace to deliver payloads between Earth and the Moon and broaden the network of partnerships that will enable the first woman and next man to set foot on the Moon by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

…These five companies, together with nine companies selected in November 2018, now are eligible to bid on launch and delivery services to the lunar surface. [emphasis mine]

The added companies are SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

I have highlighted the most important word in this press release, which is most interestingly buried to make it as little noticed as possible. The addition of SpaceX to this list and the mention that the program has now added the ability to for the companies to bid on launch contracts means that NASA’s goal here is to create a situation where it can replace SLS with a bidded contract to private industry that will costs far less and can launch frequently and on time, features that SLS is completely incapable of, and SpaceX can provide easily and reliably. This analysis by me is further reinforced in that Boeing, the builder of SLS, was not included in this list, even though only last week that company offered SLS to NASA in a wider array of launch configurations, for exactly this purpose.

If NASA had made this fact too obvious it might upset certain people in Congress (I’m talking to you Richard Shelby R-Alabama) who are wedded to SLS and its wasteful pork spending in their home states and districts.

The fact remains however that eventually SLS is going to go away. The Trump administration appears very wedded to its Artemis program to get back to the Moon by 2024, and it is apparently discovering that to make that landing happen the administration needs better alternatives.

Thank you!

My quickie one-week-long fund-raising campaign for Behind the Black has ended.

I want to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone who donated, subscribed, bought books, and in general expressed their bountiful support for the work I do here. I would thank you all personally, but there are too many and if I did I wouldn’t have time for anything else. Consider this message as my personal thank you!

This post will remain at the top of the page for the rest of today. Scroll down for updates.

Sinkholes galore!

Sinkholes galore south of Olympus Mons
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph to the left, cropped to post here, was part of the November image dump from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows a wind-swept dusty plain trending downhill to the west that is filled with more than a hundred depressions or sinkholes.

Unlike other pit images I have posted previously, this one is not focused on one particular pit or a string of pits. Instead, what makes it interesting is the large number of pits, scattered across the terrain in a random pattern. Their random distribution suggests that they are unrelated to any specific underground feature, such as a lava tube. Instead, some aspect of the underground geology here is causing the ground to sink at random points.

Below is an overview map showing where this dusty pit-strewn plain is located, indicated by the blue cross.
» Read more

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter locates crashed Chinese orbiter

Before and after images showing Longjiang-2 impact site

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has located the Chinese microsat lunar orbiter Longjiang-2, which was sent to impact the Moon in August 2019 after it completed its technology demonstration mission.

The image above shows the before and after of the location, with the satellite’s remains visible as indicated by the arrow.

Through a careful comparison of pre-existing NAC images, the LROC team was able to locate a new impact crater (16.6956°N, 159.5170°E, ±10 meters), a distance of only 328 meters from the estimated site! The crater is 4 meters by 5 meters in diameter, with the long axis oriented southwest to northeast. Based on proximity to estimated crash coordinates and the crater size, we are fairly confident that this new crater formed as a result of the Longjiang-2 impact.

The picture of the impact site might not be very impressive, but remember, this satellite only weighed about a hundred pounds. The engineering however is impressive, on all counts. First, the Chinese built a tiny cubesat that reached lunar orbit and operated there for more than a year, during which it even took a picture of the Earth. Second, the engineering team of LRO was able to find this tiny impact site for such small spacecraft in less than four months.

Caving today

Though I have scheduled some posts to go up later today, I will not be able to do any live posting until late tonight, as I am participating in a cave conservation project for the day. We are doing a damage inventory of the formations in a cave in southern Arizona so we will know when any new damage or vandalism occurs.

Wayne Brady – Thriller

An evening pause: This Postmodern Jukebox version does Michael Jackson’s song in the style of 1930s jazz.

I remember the passion for this song when Jackson first released it in 1982, including crowds forming on the street near Times Square to watch the music video. Yet, I have always wondered why. To me the song and video has always seemed quite uninteresting, almost boring. This version, however, I think brings it to life much better than Jackson. The two dancers are especially good.

Hat tip Diane Zimmerman.

Recent impact on Mars

Recent impact on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! While finding recent impacts on Mars is not that unusual, the image to the right, found among the November image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), was dramatic enough that I decided that more people besides planetary scientists should see it. For scale the photograph is exactly 500 meters wide.

The photograph, taken September 26, 2019, also illustrates all the typical aspects of impact craters, and how they change the landscape.

This impact took place sometime between July 17, 2012 and January 4, 2018. We know this because it wasn’t there in a low-resolution image taken by the wide angle survey camera on MRO on the first date but was there when that same camera took another picture on the second date. Below is a side-by-side comparison of that July 17, 2012 image with the high resolution 2019 image above.
» Read more

First global geologic map of Titan

Global geologic map of Titan
Click for full image.

Planetary scientists today released the first global geologic map of the Saturn moon Titan. The image on the right is a reduced version of the full image.

In the annotated figure, the map is labeled with several of the named surface features. Also located is the landing site of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Huygens Probe, part of NASA’s Cassini mission.

The map legend colors represent the broad types of geologic units found on Titan: plains (broad, relatively flat regions), labyrinth (tectonically disrupted regions often containing fluvial channels), hummocky (hilly, with some mountains), dunes (mostly linear dunes, produced by winds in Titan’s atmosphere), craters (formed by impacts) and lakes (regions now or previously filled with liquid methane or ethane).

To put it mildly, there is a lot of uncertainty here. Nonetheless, this is a first attempt, and it shows us that the distribution of these features is not homogeneous. The dunes favor the equatorial regions, the lakes the polar regions. Also, the small number of craters could be a feature of erosion processes from the planet’s active atmosphere, or simply be because Cassini’s radar data did not have the resolution to see smaller craters. I suspect the former.

Indonesia to building rocket and spaceport

The new colonial movement: Officials from Indonesia’s space agency, LAPAN, today revealed that they picked a location for a new larger spaceport, and will use it to test their own home-grown rocket.

Indonesia plans to construct its first spaceport in Biak, Papua, to serve the country’s rocket test launches, the country’s National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) has confirmed.

LAPAN flight and aerospace study centre head Robertus Heru Trijahyanto said Indonesia will build the spaceport following LAPAN’s existing rocket launch site in South Garut on West Java. However, it will be bigger so that it can be used for larger test launches.

The article mentions that they will get help from international partners, but provides little detail.

Second Kuaizhou-1A launch in less than a week

The new colonial movement: China today successfully completed its second Kuaizhou-1A launch in four days, placing two communications satellites into orbit.

In just a little more than a four day period, from the very same pad, with the very same launch team and launch truck, China has launched yet another Kuaizhou-1A rocket carrying satellites into orbit.

…The Kuaizhou-1A is a 4 stage, mostly solid fuel powered launch vehicle developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASIC) and commercialized by the China Space Sanjiang Group Corporation (also known as Expace Corporation).

Promoted by CASIC as being high reliability, high precision and low cost, the launch vehicle can send a 200 kg payload into a 700 km altitude sun-synchronous orbit. The vehicle is possibly based on the road-mobile DF-21 missile, with two additional solid fuel upper stages and a re-startable liquid fuel upper stage. It was designed with the goal to provide an easy to operate quick-reaction launch vehicle, that can remain in storage for long periods and to provide launch missions on short notice.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

25 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

In the national rankings, China widened its lead over the U.S. to 25 to 23.

A quick holiday fund-raising campaign for Behind the Black

In past years I have managed to avoid asking for donations for Behind the Black during the holiday season. My finances however now compel me to do a short one-week fund-raiser, from November 11 to November 17.

I do not use Twitter for ethical reasons, which I have been told cuts down on traffic to the website. So be it. Furthermore, Facebook has clearly acted in the past two years to limit traffic to Behind the Black, almost certainly for political reasons. So be this as well.

Finally, I do not post outside ads, as I have found them annoying to my readers and not that profitable to me.

Therefore, I need to ask for the direct support from my readers. If you like what I do here, please consider contributing, either by making a one-time donation or a monthly subscription, as indicated at the tip jar to the right or below. Or if you prefer sending an old fashioned check, you can do so by mailing it, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to:

Behind The Black,
c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652

Or you could consider purchasing one of my books, as indicated in the boxes scattered throughout the website. My histories of space exploration are award-winning and are aimed for the general public. All are page-turners, and all not only tell the story of the beginning of the human exploration of space, they also help explain why we are where we are today. And I also have a science fiction book available, Pioneer, which tells its own exciting story while trying to predict what life in space will be like two hundred years in the future.

Note that for this week only I am also having a sale on the purchase of the last 20 hardbacks of Leaving Earth. (Click on the link for more information about the book, which was endorsed by Arthur C. Clarke himself!) This award-winning out-of-print book is now only available as an ebook, but I still have a handful of hardbacks available, normally for sale for $70 plus $5 shipping. For this week only you can buy them, personally autographed by me, for $50 plus $5 shipping! Just send me a check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to the address above, with a note saying that the money is for the Leaving Earth hardback.

Please consider donating. Your help will make it possible for me to continue to be an independent reporter in the field of space, science, technology, and culture.

This announcement will remain at the top of the webpage for the rest of this week. Scroll down for new updates and stories.

Islands of ice on Mars and Pluto

Ice-filled craters near Martian south pole

In a paper published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, scientists describe the identification of 31 ice-filled craters in the high southern latitudes of Mars. The map to the right, from their paper, shows the locations of these craters. The scientists also took a look at Pluto, and found five craters there that had similar features, though these were likely filled with frozen nitrogen, not water ice.

From their abstract:

These new 31 ice deposits represent an inventory of more than 10 trillion cubic meters of solid water, similar to but greater in number and volume than previously studied features near the north pole. Similar features of nitrogen ice may exist in craters on Pluto, suggesting that craters are a favorable location for the accumulation or preservation of ices throughout the Solar System. [emphasis mine]

These results are reinforced by the existence of glacial features found in numerous Martian craters at much lower latitudes, as well as the ice suspected to exist in the permanently shadowed craters on the Moon and Mercury. The processes that put the ice there on these different planets might be fundamentally different, but the results are the same: Ice accumulating within craters.

One aspect of these high latitude craters that remains somewhat unexplained is their asymmetrical distribution around the south pole, favoring the side of the planet south of Mars’ giant volcanoes. Moreover, in looking at the ice deposits within these craters the scientists found that the ice seemed to lie off-center within the craters, favoring a similar direction.

Based on the available data, the scientists theorize that the most likely cause of this asymmetric off-center pattern is wind. From their paper:

Basic physical arguments, mesoscale atmospheric models, and geomorphological observations predict deflection of winds emanating from the south pole by the Coriolis Force. Such deflection results in a general westward trend of winds (i.e., easterlies) in the south polar regions outside the [south pole cap], matching the [ice-filled crater] offsets we observe.

This correlation implies that wind is important in … formation and/or evolution [of craters with ice]. For the case where winds control [their] formation, katabatic winds may travel down the east side of crater walls and preferentially deposit ice on the west side of the crater via orographic precipitation as they flow up the west crater wall. This mechanism thus favors local accumulation of ice within craters.

I find it fascinating that the location of ice within craters on Mars might indirectly provide scientists with information about the planet’s global weather patterns. This unexpected connection highlights the need to dismiss no data or feature in trying to understand planetary formation. Unlikely things might answer our questions.

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