Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapses ahead of planned demolition

The instrument platform of the 305-meter telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed overnight, according to the National Science Foundation.



a train traveling over Arecibo Observatory: Arecibo Observatory's 305-meter telescope in November of 2020.


© University of Central Florida
Arecibo Observatory’s 305-meter telescope in November of 2020.

It’s a final blow to one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth that has aided astronomical discoveries for 57 years and withstood hurricanes, earthquakes and tropical storms.

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Engineers assessed the damage and determined that all three of the telescope’s support towers broke off, sending the 900-ton instrument platform plummeting down to the dish below. The telescope’s support cables also dropped. The observatory’s learning center was significantly damaged by the falling cables as well.

The collapse occurred just weeks after NSF announced that the telescope would be decommissioned and disassembled through a controlled demolition after sustaining irreparable damage earlier this year.

“The instrument platform of the 305m telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed,” according to a tweet by the National Science Foundation.

“NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico,” the foundation said in another tweet.

The spherical radio/radar telescope includes a radio dish 1,000 feet across and a 900-ton instrument platform suspended 450 feet above it. Cables connected to three towers hold the telescope in place.

“We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a statement. “When engineers advised NSF that the structure was unstable and presented a danger to work teams and Arecibo staff, we took their warnings seriously and continued to emphasize the importance of safety for everyone involved. Our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”

An auxiliary cable came loose from a socket on one of the towers in August, creating a 100-foot gash in the dish. Engineers were assessing and working on a plan to repair the damage when another main cable on the tower broke on November 6.

When it broke, the cable crashed into the reflector dish below, causing additional damage.

After the break on November 6, engineers inspected the rest of the cables and discovered new breaks as well as slippage from some of the sockets on the towers. Multiple engineering companies reviewed the damage. They determined that the telescope could collapse because it is “in danger of catastrophic failure” and the cables were weaker than expected.

The latest review revealed that damage to the telescope could not be stabilized without risking staff and the construction team. This led to the NSF making the decision to decommission the telescope after 57 years.

“We believe

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Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory ‘not closing’ after collapse

The instrument platform of the Arecibo Observatory telescope falls through the air after cables broke
The instrument platform of the Arecibo Observatory telescope falls through the air after cables broke

Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory could still have a future after its vast telescope dramatically collapsed this week, US officials said Thursday.

The structure was destroyed on Tuesday when its 900-ton receiver platform, which was suspended 450 feet (140 meters) in the air, fell loose and plunged onto the radio dish below.

Ralph Gaume, director of the US National Science Foundation’s division of astronomical sciences, said “the NSF is not closing the Arecibo Observatory.”

“The NSF is deeply saddened by the situation,” he told reporters, adding that the agency “has a very well-defined process for funding and constructing large-scale infrastructure including telescopes… it’s very early for us to comment on the replacement.”

Engineers had recently warned of the telescope’s decrepit condition, and the NSF announced only last month that it would be dismantled.

Two of the cables that held the platform over the radio dish—which measures 1,000 feet (300 meters) in diameter—had snapped this year, and the structure finally gave way on Tuesday morning.

Video footage showed the final cables breaking, and the platform swinging down onto the radio dish before a cloud of dust erupts.

Engineers had recently warned of the telescope's decrepit condition
Engineers had recently warned of the telescope’s decrepit condition

The telescope was one of the largest in the world and has been a tool for many astronomical discoveries since the 1960s.

An action scene from the James Bond film “GoldenEye” featuring Pierce Brosnan was filming at the site.


Huge Puerto Rico radio telescope, already damaged, collapses


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Destruction of Arecibo Observatory an ‘incalculable’ loss for struggling Puerto Rico

Génesis Ferrer had dreamed of working in the Arecibo Observatory ever since she first met some of its astrophysicists during a high school trip in Puerto Rico.



a tree with Arecibo Observatory in the background


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After hearing them use terms such as “radiation” and “emission,” Ferrer, 21, said she “just fell in love with the entire idea of being able to understand things so far away.” Like many scientists in the U.S. territory, Ferrer can trace back her interest in astrophysics, biophysics and space to that school trip.

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The fourth-year physics student from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus, had recently earned a fellowship from the Puerto Rico NASA Space Consortium to study emissions from red dwarf stars using the giant radio telescope in Arecibo. Because of coronavirus restrictions, Ferrer has been accessing the data she needs from the Arecibo Observatory remotely, hoping she would soon be able to finish her investigation in the place where it all started.

Those hopes faded away Tuesday morning when the Arecibo Observatory collapsed. The telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform and the Gregorian dome — a structure as tall as a four-story building that houses secondary reflectors — fell onto the northern portion of the vast reflector dish more than 400 feet below after the main cables holding up the structures broke overnight.

“I was very sad, very disappointed,” Ferrer told NBC News. “I worked so hard to finally get accepted to work in the Arecibo Observatory. And now that I got accepted, I can’t work in it. I felt very sad, not only individually, but I also saw it as a very sad thing for Puerto Rico and the science in Puerto Rico.”

The Arecibo Observatory was the largest radio telescope in the world and a point of pride for Puerto Ricans, whether they were in science or not. About 90,000 islanders and tourists visited the observatory every year, a boon to the region.

During its almost 57 years in operation, the observatory built with money from the U.S. Department of Defense has been at the forefront of space research — and a crucial training ground for space science students.

In August, the observatory started crumbling after an auxiliary cable snapped, causing damage to the telescope’s dish and the receiver platform that hung above it, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the federal agency that owns the observatory. In an attempt to prevent “an uncontrolled collapse” in order to “safely preserve other parts of the observatory that could be damaged or destroyed,” the agency said it began its plan to decommission the telescope in mid-November.

“The NSF was taking a long time to do this because they have a series of protocols they have to follow,” said Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo campus, and a planetary astrobiologist. “We thought they had an emergency plan that could speed things up.”

But the cables failed before the agency was able to preserve the telescope.

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Video: Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico collapses after cables snap

The second-largest radio telescope in the world collapsed on Tuesday morning.

The Arecibo Observatory’s 900-ton platform, which sent and received radio waves and was suspended 450 feet in the air, crashed into the 1,000-foot-wide disk below. When it fell, it pulled down with the tops of three surrounding support towers.

Videos of the crash show that it began when cables that connected the hanging platform to one of the towers snapped. Previously, an auxiliary cable on that same tower broke in August, then one of its main cables broke in November. Since then, the National Science Foundation, which owns Arecibo, had been rushing to disassemble the telescope, since it was clear a complete collapse was possible.

But the platform fell before engineers made much headway in the deconstruction process.

Jonathan Friedman, who has been part of the Arecibo Observatory’s scientific staff since 1993, told local news outlet NotiCentro the collapse sounded like the rumble of an earthquake, a train, or an avalanche.

The video below, captured from a nearby control tower, shows the platform falling at 7:54 a.m. local time. A cable takes out the catwalk that allowed engineers to access the platform. The top of the tower where the cables broke, visible in the background, then falls. Then the top of another broken tower comes rolling down the hillside on the left.

“As you can see, this was a very violent and kind of unpredictable failure,” Ashley Zauderer, NSF program manager for the Arecibo Observatory, said in a briefing on Thursday.

In a separate video, drone footage shows the cables snapping and the resulting crash from above. The drone happened to be doing reconnaissance over the telescope’s platform at that moment, since drone surveillance was a key source of information for engineers trying to figure out how to deconstruct the telescope. Due to the known risk of collapse, nobody had been allowed to approach the unstable structure since the fateful cable break in mid-November.

arecibo observatory telescope collapse drone footage



Courtesy of the Arecibo Observatory, a US National Science Foundation facility


The vicinity around the dish and the three towers had been cordoned off, so nobody was injured in the collapse, the NSF said.

A inevitable collapse

Arecibo’s downward spiral began in August, when a 3-inch-thick auxiliary cable popped out of its socket on one of the telescope’s three towers and crashed into the dish. It tore a 100-foot gash in the panels.

Arecibo observatory cable fall Dish Damage

A hole in the 1,000-foot-wide reflector dish of the Arecibo Observatory, torn when a cable fell on August 10, 2020.

Arecibo Observatory


Then the second failure, a snapped main cable, surprised the telescope’s managers in November. An engineering assessment afterward found that the remaining cables were liable to break at any time and send the platform tumbling.

Since the structure was too unstable to save without risk of it collapsing on technicians while they worked on the repairs, the NSF decided to say goodbye to Arecibo, decommissioning the world’s most iconic radio telescope.

arecibo observatory telescope dish hole cable failure

An aerial view

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Massive Arecibo Telescope Collapses in Puerto Rico | Smart News

On Tuesday, the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed, ending its nearly 60 years of operation, reports Dánica Coto for the Associated Press (AP).

The collapse saw a 900-ton equipment platform fall from more than 400 feet up and crash into the northern part of the telescope’s 1,000-foot-wide dish, per the AP. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the facility, announced that no injuries have been reported.

This final death knell for Arecibo’s telescope, which tracked asteroids approaching Earth and searched the heavens for habitable planets, followed other serious damages to the massive observatory and weeks of discussion about its future.

In August, an auxiliary cable slipped from its socket and slashed a 100-foot fissure in the observatory’s reflector dish. Then, in early November, one of the main support cables responsible for holding the equipment platform above the reflector dish snapped, placing the entire structure at significant risk of an “uncontrolled collapse,” reports Bill Chappell for NPR.

These damages prior to the total collapse led to NSF determining that the telescope could not be safely repaired, and an announcement that Arecibo’s telescope would be withdrawn from service and dismantled.

When the observatory first closed after August’s damages, about 250 scientists around the world were still using it, according to the AP. For these scientists and for those who spent many years of their lives working with the astronomical instrument in the lush mountains of Puerto Rico, its sudden destruction exacts an emotional toll.

Jonathan Friedman, a researcher who worked at the observatory for 26 years and still lives nearby, tells the AP what he heard at the moment of the collapse: “It sounded like a rumble. I knew exactly what it was. I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control… I don’t have words to express it. It’s a very deep, terrible feeling.”

“It’s such an undignified end,” Catherine Neish, an astrobiologist at Western University in London, Ontario, tells Maria Cramer and Dennis Overbye of the New York Times. “That’s what’s so sad about it.”

The telescope even achieved some level of renown among laypeople following its inclusion in popular movies such as “Contact” and the James Bond film “Goldeneye.”

Constructed in the early 1960s, the Arecibo telescope used radio waves to probe the farthest reaches of the universe. Among its most notable accomplishments is the first detection of a binary pulsar in 1974, per NPR. The discovery supported Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and eventually garnered the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics for a pair of researchers.

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Puerto Rican scientists, shattered by collapse of Arecibo Observatory, push to rebuild

Génesis Ferrer had dreamed of working in the Arecibo Observatory ever since she first met some of its astrophysicists during a high school trip in Puerto Rico.

After hearing them use terms such as “radiation” and “emission,” Ferrer, 21, said she “just fell in love with the entire idea of being able to understand things so far away.” Like many scientists in the U.S. territory, Ferrer can trace back her interest in astrophysics, biophysics and space to that school trip.

The fourth-year physics student from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus, had recently earned a fellowship from the Puerto Rico NASA Space Consortium to study emissions from red dwarf stars using the giant radio telescope in Arecibo. Because of coronavirus restrictions, Ferrer has been accessing the data she needs from the Arecibo Observatory remotely, hoping she would soon be able to finish her investigation in the place where it all started.

Those hopes faded away Tuesday morning when the Arecibo Observatory collapsed. The telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform and the Gregorian dome — a structure as tall as a four-story building that houses secondary reflectors — fell onto the northern portion of the vast reflector dish more than 400 feet below after the main cables holding up the structures broke overnight.

“I was very sad, very disappointed,” Ferrer told NBC News. “I worked so hard to finally get accepted to work in the Arecibo Observatory. And now that I got accepted, I can’t work in it. I felt very sad, not only individually, but I also saw it as a very sad thing for Puerto Rico and the science in Puerto Rico.”

The Arecibo Observatory was the largest radio telescope in the world and a point of pride for Puerto Ricans, whether they were in science or not. About 90,000 islanders and tourists visited the observatory every year, a boon to the region.

During its almost 57 years in operation, the observatory built with money from the U.S. Department of Defense has been at the forefront of space research — and a crucial training ground for space science students.

In August, the observatory started crumbling after an auxiliary cable snapped, causing damage to the telescope’s dish and the receiver platform that hung above it, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the federal agency that owns the observatory. In an attempt to prevent “an uncontrolled collapse” in order to “safely preserve other parts of the observatory that could be damaged or destroyed,” the agency said it began its plan to decommission the telescope in mid-November.

“The NSF was taking a long time to do this because they have a series of protocols they have to follow,” said Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo campus, and a planetary astrobiologist. “We thought they had an emergency plan that could speed things up.”

But the cables failed before the agency was able to preserve the telescope.

Dreams to do science in Puerto Rico

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On the same day China landed a probe on the moon, the US’s massive telescope in Puerto Rico collapsed



Left: China National Space Administration Right: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images


© Left: China National Space Administration Right: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images
Left: China National Space Administration Right: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

  • On the same day that China collected lunar rocks in a groundbreaking space mission, a critical US telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed.
  • The observatory, built in 1963, was a beacon for US astronomical research, lasted through natural disasters, and inspired generations of Puerto Rican researchers.
  • China’s successful accomplishment with the Chang’e-5 probe is the first time since the 1970s that lunar samples have been collected, and if the spacecraft returns to Earth safely in mid-December, will mark a massive step forward in space exploration. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Tuesday, the United States and China experienced vastly different events in the world of space exploration and observation.

The Arecibo Observatory, a colossal telescope located in Puerto Rico, collapsed after deteriorating sharply since August. The Arecibo Observatory had been operating as a center for astronomical observations for 57 years. 

Meanwhile, far from the Earth’s atmosphere, the unmanned Chang’e-5 probe, a Chinese spacecraft, landed on the moon to bring lunar materials back to Earth for the first time in almost 50 years, the Chinese government announced.

China’s moon landing and retrieval of lunar rocks mark the first time a country has acquired sample materials from the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976, according to NASA. 

US astronauts in NASA’s Apollo program last retrieved over 800 pounds of lunar samples between 1969 and 1972. 

Video: China successfully lands spacecraft on moon to retrieve lunar rocks (Reuters)

The two separate events on the same day show the stark contrast between China’s recent investment in space exploration and research and the US’s space efforts, which often have shifting budgets and priorities.

As Business Insider previously reported, there are myriad roadblocks to the US going back to the moon, including the cost of

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Iconic Puerto Rico telescope collapses



a close up of a rock wall: The telescope collapsed weeks after officials announced that it would be dismantled


© AFP via Getty Images
The telescope collapsed weeks after officials announced that it would be dismantled

A huge radio telescope in Puerto Rico has collapsed after decades of astronomical discoveries.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) said the telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform fell onto a reflector dish some 450ft (137m) below.

It came just weeks after officials announced that the telescope would be dismantled amid safety fears, following damage to its support system.

The Arecibo Observatory telescope was one of the largest in the world.

It was a key scientific resource for radio astronomers for 57 years, and was also made famous as the backdrop for a scene in the James Bond film GoldenEye and other Hollywood films.

The NSF said there had been no reports of injuries following the collapse.

https://twitter.com/NSF/status/1333772980539691008

What happened to the telescope?

The telescope consisted of a 1,000ft-wide radio dish with a 900-ton instrument platform hanging 450ft above. The platform was suspended by cables connected to three towers.

Two cables had broken since August, damaging the structure and forcing officials to close the observatory.

A review last month found that the telescope was at risk of catastrophic collapse and said the huge structure could not be repaired without posing a potentially deadly risk to construction workers.

Officials said the structure would be dismantled.



a train traveling down train tracks near a mountain: The telescope was damaged in August and November


© Reuters
The telescope was damaged in August and November

Following the announcement, three members of Congress, including Puerto Rico’s representative Jenniffer González, requested funds “to enable the NSF to continue exploring options to safely stabilise the structure”.

Jonathan Friedman, who worked for 26 years as a senior research associate at the observatory and still lives near it, told the Associated Press news agency of the moment the telescope collapsed on Tuesday.

“It sounded like a rumble. I knew exactly what it was,” he said. “I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control… I don’t have words to express it. It’s a very deep, terrible feeling.”

The NSF said it was “saddened” by the collapse and would be “looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico”.

What is the history of the telescope?

By Paul Rincon, Science editor, BBC News website

The telescope was built in the early 1960s, with the intention of studying the ionised upper part of Earth’s atmosphere, the ionosphere. But it was soon being used as an all-purpose radio observatory.

Radio astronomy is a field within the larger discipline that observes objects in the Universe by studying them at radio frequencies. A number of cosmic phenomena such as pulsars – magnetised, rotating stars – show emission at radio wavelengths.

The observatory provided the first solid evidence for a type of object known as a neutron star. It was also used to identify the first example of a binary pulsar (two magnetised neutron stars orbiting around a common centre of mass), which earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The telescope helped to make the

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The Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico Collapses

The enormous Arecibo radio telescope, a destination for astronomers perched in the mountains of Puerto Rico, has collapsed, the National Science Foundation said on Tuesday.

The telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform, which was suspended by cables connected to three towers, fell onto the 1,000-foot antenna dish sometime overnight, the foundation said.

“The platform fell unexpectedly,” said Joshua Chamot, a spokesman for the foundation, which owns the telescope at the Arecibo Observatory. Officials said they were assessing the collapse before releasing more details. They did not specify when the platform had collapsed or why it fell.

“As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico,” the foundation said on Twitter.

The foundation announced on Nov. 19 that the telescope had to be torn down after an auxiliary cable slipped out of its socket and left a 100-foot gash in the dish below. The observatory is managed by the University of Central Florida.

“The decision comes after N.S.F. evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support,” the foundation said last month.

On Nov. 24, the foundation said engineers had observed more breaks in the wires of the remaining cables attached to one of the towers that held the platform.

The observatory has served as the vanguard of the search for alien civilizations, and astronomers used it to track killer asteroids.

For nearly six decades, the observatory was a renowned resource for radio astronomy and planetary research, and it held enormous cultural significance for Puerto Ricans. Many said they were inspired by the observatory to pursue careers in science and technology.

The telescope became ingrained in popular culture and was featured in movies like “Contact” and the James Bond film “Golden Eye.”

But after years of hurricane damage and financial duress, questions arose about the observatory’s future.

Puerto Rico residents and astronomers had called on the foundation to repair the telescope rather than demolish it.

Before the collapse, nearly 60,000 people signed a petition urging federal agencies to find a way to stabilize the structure.

But Thornton Tomasetti, an engineering firm hired by the University of Central Florida to assess the telescope, said the likelihood of another cable failing was too high to justify repair work.

“Although it saddens us to make this recommendation, we believe the structure should be demolished in a controlled way as soon as pragmatically possible,” the firm said in a letter to the university and the foundation.

“This is a stunning loss for our science capability,” Justin Kugler, an aerospace engineer, said on Twitter. “The United States needs to create a plan for a successor radio telescope that builds on the heritage of Arecibo and honors the commitment of Puerto Rico over these many years.”

Dennis Overbye contributed reporting.

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Huge Puerto Rico radio telescope, already damaged, collapses

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A huge, already damaged radio telescope in Puerto Rico that has played a key role in astronomical discoveries for more than half a century completely collapsed on Tuesday.

The telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform fell onto the reflector dish more than 400 feet below.

The U.S. National Science Foundation had earlier announced that the Arecibo Observatory would be closed. An auxiliary cable snapped in August, causing a 100-foot gash on the 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) dish and damaged the receiver platform that hung above it. Then a main cable broke in early November.

The collapse stunned many scientists who had relied on what was until recently the largest radio telescope in the world.

“It sounded like a rumble. I knew exactly what it was,” said Jonathan Friedman, who worked for 26 years as a senior research associate at the observatory and still lives near it. “I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control…. I don’t have words to express it. It’s a very deep, terrible feeling.”

Friedman ran up a small hill near his home and confirmed his suspicions: A cloud of dust hung in the air where the structure once stood, demolishing hopes held by some scientists that the telescope could somehow be repaired.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Carmen Pantoja, an astronomer and professor at the University of Puerto Rico who used the telescope for her doctorate. “It was a chapter of my life.”

Scientists worldwide had been petitioning U.S. officials and others to reverse the NSF’s decision to close the observatory. The NSF said at the time that it intended to eventually reopen the visitor center and restore operations at the observatory’s remaining assets, including its two LIDAR facilities used for upper atmospheric and ionospheric research, including analyzing cloud cover and precipitation data.

The telescope was built in the 1960s with money from the Defense Department amid a push to develop anti-ballistic missile defenses. It had endured hurricanes, tropical humidity and a recent string of earthquakes in its 57 years of operation.

The telescope has been used to track asteroids on a path to Earth, conduct research that led to a Nobel Prize and determine if a planet is potentially habitable. It also served as a training ground for graduate students and drew about 90,000 visitors a year.

“I am one of those students who visited it when young and got inspired,” said Abel Méndez, a physics and astrobiology professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo who has used the telescope for research. “The world without the observatory loses, but Puerto Rico loses even more.”

He last used the telescope on Aug. 6, just days before a socket holding the auxiliary cable that snapped failed in what experts believe could be a manufacturing error. The National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory that is managed by the University of Central Florida, said crews who evaluated the structure after the first incident determined that the remaining cables could handle the additional weight.

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