Astronomer Captures Possible Image of NASA’s Long-Lost Centaur Rocket Booster

A possible image of NASA’s lost Centaur upper stage rocket booster, launched in 1966.

A possible image of NASA’s lost Centaur upper stage rocket booster, launched in 1966.
Image: Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0

A tiny mystery object is zipping past the Earth today, providing astronomers with an excellent opportunity to finally confirm it as being the upper stage of a Centaur rocket that was launched by NASA in 1966.

Is it or isn’t it? This is the question that astronomers have been asking since September, when scientists with the Pan-STARRS1 survey in Maui, Hawai’i, first spotted the object, named 2020 SO. Astronomers have good reason to believe it’s returning space junk, specifically a Surveyor 2 Centaur rocket booster dating back to the 1960s. Trouble is, they haven’t actually been able to prove it.

2020 SO normally orbits the Sun, but Earth’s gravity has, albeit temporarily, turned this object into an artificial minimoon. The object will complete a pair of orbits around our planet before it adopts a new orbit around the Sun, but today (December 1, 2020) is a special day, as the object is making its closest approach to Earth.

Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0—a group that uses remotely controlled telescopes to observe space—took the opportunity to capture a photo of the object last night.

“I managed to get a tracked image of the object, but also a trail [upper left in the photo] and the latter shows a dotted pattern, basically a bright dot, followed by a fainter one and so on,” Masi explained in an email. “This suggests the object was rotating, with a period of about 10 seconds.”

Masi said he’ll have more to share soon, so we’re looking forward to that.

Looking at the image, we still can’t be sure that we’re gazing upon the lost rocket booster, but we so want to believe that it is. The purpose of NASA’s Surveyor 2 mission was to examine the lunar surface prior to the Apollo missions. Launched on September 20, 1966, the mission started well, but on the second day, a thruster on Surveyor 2 failed to ignite, throwing the spacecraft into a spin. Surveyor 2 crashed onto the lunar surface, while the Centaur upper stage drifted past the Moon and into an unknown orbit around the Sun.

After that, no one gave it much thought.

NASA’s Surveyor program was actually quite successful, despite two failures out of seven attempts to perform soft landings on the lunar surface between 1966 and 1968. You can learn more about these missions here.

A Centaur second-stage rocket during assembly in 1962.

A Centaur second-stage rocket during assembly in 1962.
Image: NASA

Soon after 2020 SO was spotted by PanSTARRs, astronomers at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flagged the object on account of its unexpected behavior. The object’s orbit was more Earth-like than asteroid-like, featuring a nearly circular orbit within Earth’s orbital plane. That’s not typically seen in asteroids.

Additional observations showed that

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Component failure in NASA’s deep-space crew capsule could take months to fix

Engineers are racing to fix a failed piece of equipment on NASA’s future deep-space crew capsule Orion ahead of its first flight to space. It may require months of work to replace and fix. Right now, engineers at NASA and Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin, are trying to figure out the best way to fix the component and how much time the repairs are going to take.

the inside of a building

In early November, engineers at Lockheed Martin working on Orion noticed that a power component inside the vehicle had failed, according to an internal email and an internal PowerPoint presentation seen by The Verge. Known as a power and data unit, or PDU, the component is a “main power/data boxes,” according to the email, responsible for activating key systems that Orion needs during flight.


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Orion is a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program

Orion is a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. The cone-shaped capsule is designed to launch on top of a future rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, a vehicle that NASA has been building for the last decade. To test out both of these systems’ capabilities, NASA plans to launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on top of the SLS on the rocket’s first flight in late 2021 — a mission called Artemis I.

While the SLS still has many key tests to undergo before that flight, the Orion capsule slated to fly on that first mission is mostly assembled, waiting in Florida at NASA’s Operation and Checkout Facility at Kennedy Space Center. NASA had planned to transfer the Orion capsule to the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF) at KSC on December 7th, though that rollout may be postponed due to this issue. When asked for a response, NASA directed The Verge to a quick blog post outlining the failure.

a dirty kitchen in a house: NASA’s Orion crew capsule, attached to the adapter and service module, with spacecraft adapter jettison fairings installed.

© Photo by Ben Smegelsky / NASA
NASA’s Orion crew capsule, attached to the adapter and service module, with spacecraft adapter jettison fairings installed.

Replacing the PDU isn’t easy. The component is difficult to reach: it’s located inside an adapter that connects Orion to its service module — a cylindrical trunk that provides support, propulsion, and power for the capsule during its trip through space. To get to the PDU, Lockheed Martin could remove the Orion crew capsule from its service module, but it’s a lengthy process that could take up to a year. As many as nine months would be needed to take the vehicle apart and put it back together again, in addition to three months for subsequent testing, according to the presentation.

Lockheed has another option, but it’s never been done before and may carry extra risks, Lockheed Martin engineers acknowledge in their presentation. To do it, engineers would have to tunnel through the adapter’s exterior by removing some of the outer panels of the adapter to get to the PDU. The panels weren’t designed to be removed

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NASA’s Plutonium Tours U.S. Before Heading To Mars

The plutonium-238 that powers NASA’s rovers on Mars crisscrosses the United States first on a tour of national laboratories.

Department of Energy officials outlined the path and process of manufacturing the Pu-238 for the Perseverance Rover that launched in July and is already about two-thirds of the way to the Red Planet.

“Perseverance’s nuclear heart completed its own journey of seven years and nearly 5,000 miles before finally meeting up with the rover at Kennedy Space Center in Florida,” said Matt Dozier, the host of DOE’s Direct Current podcast.

NASA uses a solid-state nuclear battery, called a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, instead of, say, solar arrays, so the rover can keep operating during dust storms and the Martian night. With a halflife of 90 years, Pu-238 can keep a craft powered for decades.

“What’s the secret to their longevity?” Dozier asks. “It’s not turmeric, or acai berries, or wheat germ—the Mars rovers, and dozens of other NASA missions, run on a diet of pure plutonium-238.”

The $75 million MMRTG produces about 110 watts of electricity from the heat of decaying PU-238.

Dozier interviewed DOE officials tasked with processing and securing the dangerous isotope during each step of its manufacture:

1 Idaho National Laboratory: The fuel begins its journey as neptunium-237, a by-product of nuclear reactors that’s stored at Idaho National Laboratories. “The Oak Ridge National Lab essentially calls up the Idaho National Lab and phones in a shipment, let’s say, for neptunium,” said Robert Wham, program manager for the Pu-238 Supply Program at Oak Ridge. “We get neptunium on a just-in-time basis; it’s shipped to us, and then we do the chemical processing here.”

2 Oak Ridge National Laboratory: Oak Ridge mixes the Np-237 with aluminum and bombards it with radiation in a reactor for 50 to 60 days. Some of the Np-237 turns into Pu-238, which Oak Ridge technicians separate, collecting plutonium as a powder. Oak Ridge also builds an iridium cladding that should keep the plutonium contained.

“One of the things that we worry about is that if there’s an accident either during launch or shortly after launch, that when these generators come back to Earth, and they’ll crash into Earth at very high velocities, very high speeds,” said Easo George, an alloys expert who serves as the governor’s chair at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee. “And we want to make sure that if—such a very low-probability event—but if something like that were to happen, that the iridium would contain the plutonium fuel and prevent it contaminating areas around where it strikes.”

3 Los Alamos National Laboratory: The Pu-238 then heads 1,400 miles west to Los Alamos

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NASA’s Hubble Spots Galaxy Being Stripped Of Dark Matter

Dark matter theory has long been sacrosanct in mainstream astronomical circles. Rarely do astronomers contradict the tenet that some 85 percent of all matter in the cosmos is dominated by unseen matter that only weakly interacts with gravity.   

Thus, it came as a surprise that doubt was cast on its existence by recent Hubble Space Telescope observations of two massive galaxies that appeared to be altogether devoid of this exotic matter. 

But in a paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, an international team of scientists detail observations on NGC 1052-DF4, the second galaxy purported to harbor little or no such dark matter. They argue that NGC 1052-DF4, a massive galaxy some 45 million light years away in the southern constellation of Cetus, is being almost completely stripped of this strange matter via gravitational interactions with its nearby galactic neighbor, NGC 1035.

In fact, NASA asserts that the forces driving NGC 1035 to interfere with NGC 1052-DF4 are tearing the latter apart. 

Deep optical imaging of NGC 1052-DF4 has revealed that this galaxy is undergoing tidal disruption, write the authors, caused by its interaction with its neighbor, NGC 1035. Dark matter is less concentrated than stars, and therefore during interactions is preferentially stripped from satellites galaxies, they report.

How does such stripping actually work?

Like the friction of chalk on a blackboard, Mireia Montes, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New South Wales in Australia and the paper’s lead author, told me. As you write with the chalk, the chalk’s particles are deposited in the direction of your script, she says. 

By rote, as the galaxy continues its interaction with its massive galactic neighbor, the stripped chalk particles would get deposited in the direction of the orbit of the galaxy, says Montes. In this case, what we can see that NGC 1052-DF4’s stars are actually beginning to be stripped from their host galaxy, she says.

Such research provides case studies in how and why large galaxies actually form. Dark matter helps to form galaxies as it provides sort of the gravitational well where ordinary matter can sit and cool down and form stars, says Montes. 

It also acts as a protective shield.  Without this dark matter shield, says Montes, the galaxy would be very unstable and prone to gravitational influence from external forces. Thus, she says, such galaxies wouldn’t survive in an environment where

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Fly over Jupiter in this stunning video from NASA’s Juno spacecraft

What if you could hitch a ride on NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter? We may be stuck on Earth, but the space agency has given us the next best option: a new video flyover of Jupiter based on photos from Juno’s recent flyby in June. 

The stunning video, which is made up of 41 images captured on June 2, gives us a glimpse of what we’d see if we were able to fly around Jupiter ourselves, combining pictures taken from different angles as the spacecraft sped by the solar system’s largest planet. 

Throughout the video, we see zoomed-in views of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at Juno’s closest approach, when the spacecraft was about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, as well as zoomed-out views. At the spacecraft’s closest point to Jupiter, the gas giant’s powerful gravity sped the spacecraft up to an impressive 130,000 mph (209,000 kph) relative to the planet, according to a NASA statement

In photos: Juno’s amazing views of Jupiter

NASA compiled images taken from the agency’s Juno spacecraft to recreate a Jupiter flyby.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS )

Citizen scientist Kevin Gill created the video with data from Juno’s JunoCam, which digitally projects images onto a sphere with a virtual “camera,” giving us these beautiful views of Jupiter. These pictures were taken between 5:47 a.m. and 7:25 a.m. EDT (0947 and 1125 GMT) on June 2 as the spacecraft made its 27th close flyby of the planet. 

Juno launched in 2011 and, after a five-year trek through space, reached Jupiter in July 2016. The spacecraft circles the solar system’s largest planet taking data so we can understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Since its first flyby, Juno has provided incredible information about the planet, including an up-close look at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a giant storm swirling through the planet’s atmosphere. 

Though the spacecraft was meant to take a dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 2018, NASA has extended its mission through 2021. 

Follow Kasandra Brabaw on Twitter @KassieBrabaw. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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NASA’s Voyager 2 probe receives first commands since March, sends back a hello


The Voyager 2 probe is some 11.6 billion miles from home but it’s still performing its job admirably.


The Voyager 2 probe, one of NASA’s most well-traveled spacecraft, has been unable to communicate with Earth for the past eight months. Voyager 2 has been wandering alone at the edge of interstellar space, gathering data some 11.6 billion miles from Earth and sending it back to us. 

But we haven’t been able to pick up the phone and call back.

The only radio antenna that can communicate with the probe, Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43) in Australia, has been offline while NASA completes a series of hardware upgrades. Some of the transmitters on DSS43 haven’t been replaced for over 47 years, according to NASA. To test new hardware, the dish pinged Voyager 2 on Oct. 29 with a few commands. It was the first time since mid-March that a signal was beamed to the spacecraft.

And because the probe is so far away, the communication team had to wait over 34 hours for a reply. 

Sure enough, Voyager 2 received the commands with no problems and sent back a “hello.”

Fortunately, it appears Voyager 2 remains blissfully unaware of all the terrible things that have occurred on Earth since March.

NASA’s Deep Space Network allows Earth-bound scientists to communicate with spacecraft and rovers across the solar system. The network consists of three huge telescopes located in the US, Spain and Australia. 

But the US and Spanish telescopes are unable to communicate with Voyager 2 because of its trajectory. When the probe passed by Triton, a moon of Neptune, it was shot out of the solar system’s plane. If you think of the solar system like a plate, the probe is like a pea that rolled around a potato and off the side and started traveling toward the floor. From that position, the Northern Hemisphere telescopes can’t send a signal — but DSS43 can. 

With the cosmic call, engineers and scientists can be confident the hardware upgrades haven’t messed with our ability to communicate with deep space probes. 

“This test communication with Voyager 2 definitely tells us that things are on track with the work we’re doing,” said Brad Arnold, Deep Space Network project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. The upgrades are scheduled to be completed by 2021.

Although the probe is now 43 years old, it just keeps on truckin’. A year ago, Voyager 2 scientists published new data collected by the probe as it passed into interstellar space. Earlier this year, before DSS43

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NASA’s moon-exploring Viper will be the first rover to rock headlights

The Viper team tested prototype LED headlight arrays on a simulated lunar landscape.

NASA/Dominic Hart

With a name like “Viper,” you know NASA is serious about doing some hard-core rover exploration on the moon. The space agency’s in-development four-wheeled lunar vehicle has already booked a ride to space for 2023, but it’s in need of some serious candlepower to light up its destination on the moon’s south pole.

NASA shared a behind-the-scenes look last week at how it’s developing “the first-ever lighting system on a rover.” The Viper team put some car-like prototype headlights through their paces at a testing site designed to simulate the lunar landscape at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, aka Viper, will be looking for water ice and taking soil samples, but it’ll need to avoid what NASA describes as “potentially mission-fatal dangers” such as boulders. It’ll also need an assist with navigating steep, dark craters.

This artist’s concept drawing shows NASA’s Viper rover heading into a crater on the moon.

NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

The Viper’s lighting gear goals mesh nicely with NASA’s definitive evidence of water on the moon and how it can be found tucked into shadowy areas.

“Whether it’s on a rover or the next model of sedan, a bad lighting design means a driver can’t see details in the landscape. We have to pay extra attention to these challenges on the moon because once Viper gets there, there’s no coming back,” said Viper team member Uland Wong in a NASA statement. 

The team is working with LED arrays mounted on a mast, some of which will be able to throw focused beams of light, and some that will light up bigger areas. NASA tested the prototype lighting systems on the simulated lunar landscape under different types of conditions expected on the moon. The team snapped pictures to compare the images and help narrow down the design for the future rover.  

Viper is one component of NASA’s ambitious plans for re-exploring the moon, which includes sending astronauts back to our space neighbor in 2024 through the Artemis program

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has taken illuminated nighttime images with a small LED setup. Viper will be operating on a different level, able to flood its surroundings with light and bring some much-needed brightness to a shadowy situation.    

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Probe Successfully Stows Space-Rock Sample

NASA’s pioneering OSIRIS-REx probe has bagged up its precious asteroid sample for return to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx has finished stowing the bits of the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu that it snagged last Tuesday (Oct. 20), successfully locking the material into the spacecraft’s return capsule, mission team members announced Thursday (Oct. 29).

And the sample appears to be substantial—far heftier than the 2.1 ounces (60 grams) the mission had set as a target, team members said. Indeed, OSIRIS-REx collected so much material on Oct. 20 that its sampling head couldn’t close properly; the head’s sealing mylar flap was wedged open in places by protruding Bennu pebbles.

The OSIRIS-REx team noticed that issue last week when examining photos of the head and its collected sample; flakes of escaped asteroid material drifted through the frames. To minimize the amount lost, the team decided to expedite the precise and complex stowing procedure, which was supposed to happen next week.

So, over the course of 36 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday (Oct. 27 and Oct. 28), engineers directed OSIRIS-REx to deposit the sampling head, which sat at the end of the probe’s robotic arm, into the return capsule; tug on the head to make sure it was secured properly; sever connections with the robotic arm; and lock up the return capsule via the locking of two latches.

This was all done while OSIRIS-REx was about 205 million miles (330 million kilometers) from Earth, meaning it took 18.5 minutes for each command to reach OSIRIS-REx, and another 18.5 minutes for each update from the probe to come back down to Earth. 

“We wanted to only attempt stow one time, and we wanted to make sure we were successful,” OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager Sandra Freund, of Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, said during a NASA news conference Thursday. “And we definitely were.”

The change of plans required a last-minute reallocation of time on NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), the system of radio telescopes that the agency uses to communicate with its far-flung probes. Because the stow operation was so important and so involved, OSIRIS-REx needed a large block of continuous DSN time, which other NASA missions sacrificed for the greater good.

It’s unclear exactly how much asteroid material now sits in OSIRIS-REx’s return capsule, which will come down to Earth in September 2023. The team canceled a planned post-sampling weighing procedure that would have involved spinning the probe, because this maneuver would have resulted in more sample loss. (Moving the arm—to photograph the sample and conduct the stow operation, for example—imparted grain-liberating acceleration, mission team members explained. So they wanted to minimize such motions.) 

But there’s definitely a lot of asteroid material on board, said mission principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

The sampling operation on Oct. 20 went extremely well, Lauretta said, and the head penetrated deep into Bennu’s surface—perhaps 19 inches (48 centimeters) or more. The team is confident that OSIRIS-REx pretty much filled its sampling head that day, meaning it likely backed

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Software is big concern for NASA’s Boeing-built SLS moon rocket

When it launches, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, a towering 322-foot behemoth — taller than the Statue of Liberty — would be the most powerful rocket ever flown, eclipsing both the Saturn V that flew astronauts to the moon and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which has launched commercial and national security satellites as well as founder Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on a trip to Mars.

But as NASA moves toward the SLS’s first flight, putting the Orion spacecraft in orbit around the moon, it’s not the rocket’s engines that concern officials but the software that will control everything the rocket does, from setting its trajectory to opening individual valves to open and close.

Computing power has become as critical to rockets as the brute force that lifts them out of Earth’s atmosphere, especially rockets like the SLS, which is really an amalgamation of parts built by a variety of manufacturers: Boeing builds the rocket’s “core stage,” the main part of the vehicle. Lockheed Martin builds the Orion spacecraft. Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman are responsible for the RS-25 engines and the side boosters, respectively. And the United Launch Alliance handles the upper stage.

All of those components need to work together for a mission to be successful. But NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) recently said it was concerned about the disjointed way the complicated system was being developed and tested.

At an ASAP meeting last month, Paul Hill, a member of the panel and a former flight and mission operations director at the agency, said the “panel has great concern about the end-to-end integrated test capability and plans, especially for flight software.”

Instead of one comprehensive avionics and software test to mimic flight, he said, there is “instead multiple and separate labs; emulators and simulations are being used to test subsets of the software.”

“As much as possible, flight systems should be developed for success, with the goal to test like you fly. In the same way that NASA’s operations teams train the way you fly and fly the way you train,” Hill said.

Also troubling to the safety panel was that NASA and its contractors appeared not to have taken “advantage of the lessons learned” from the botched flight last year of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which suffered a pair of software errors that prevented it from docking with the International Space Station as planned and forced controllers to cut the mission short.

NASA has since said that it did a poor job of overseeing Boeing on the Starliner program, and has since vowed to have more rigorous reviews of its work, especially its software testing.

The SLS software concerns are the latest red flags for a program that has struggled to overcome a series of cost overruns and setbacks. A slew of government watchdog reports over the years have painted a troubling picture of mismanagement.

Three years ago, the NASA Inspector General reported in an audit that NASA had spent more than $15 billion on SLS, the Orion spacecraft

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NASA’s asteroid probe grabbed so much material it was ‘overflowing’

a person flying through the air on a rock in the snow: asteroid sample

© Provided by BGR
asteroid sample

  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is going even better than scientists thought, and the asteroid probe collected so much material that its handlers sped up the timeline to ensure they bring as much back to Earth as possible.
  • The sampling arm was literally “overflowing” with material from the asteroid, NASA says.
  • Eventually, the spacecraft will head back to Earth where it will drop off the sample so that scientists can study it first-hand.

It’s been a very big month for NASA’s asteroid-hunting ambitions. The space agency’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully performed its delicate “Touch and Go” or TAG maneuver by touching down on the space rock known as Bennu for a few seconds before returning to a safe orbit. During those brief moments, the spacecraft kicked up a bunch of asteroid surface material and attempted to capture it.

Days later, it finally became clear that the capture arm did indeed grab enough material for it to be saved for the journey home. However, saving the material isn’t just a matter of stuffing it in the spacecraft’s pocket. The stowing process takes time, but the good news is that the stowing procedure was indeed completed successfully.

Click here to read the full article.

The spacecraft’s ultimate goal is to bring material from the surface of the asteroid back to Earth so that scientists can study it first-hand. The trip back to Earth hasn’t yet begun, but the hardest parts seem to be in the rearview. Probe survived its close encounter with the space rock, grabbed a sample, and it’s now stowed safely away.

In fact, the sample-snatching maneuver worked so well that the team sped up the timeline for stowing the sample:

The stowage process, originally scheduled to begin in early November, was expedited after sample collection when the mission team received images that showed the spacecraft’s collector head overflowing with material. The images indicated that the spacecraft collected well over 2 ounces (60 grams) of Bennu’s surface material, and that some of these particles appeared to be slowly escaping from the head. A mylar flap designed to keep the sample inside the head appeared to be wedged open by some larger rocks. Now that the head is secure inside the SRC, pieces of the sample will no longer be lost.

“This achievement by OSIRIS-REx on behalf of NASA and the world has lifted our vision to the higher things we can achieve together, as teams and nations,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “Together a team comprising industry, academia and international partners, and a talented and diverse team of NASA employees with all types of expertise, has put us on course to vastly increase our collection on Earth of samples from space. Samples like this are going to transform what we know about our universe and ourselves, which is at the base of all NASA’s endeavors.”

The spacecraft’s return to Earth will take many months, but you can bet that scientists will be mighty excited

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