Astronomers add at least 4 new low-mass planets to their posse

By Phil Plait | December 14, 2009 1:13 pm

61VirAstronomers announced today the discovery of at least four — and as many as six — planets orbiting two nearby stars. These planets are relatively low mass, ranging from 5 to 25 times the mass of the Earth. For comparison, Jupiter is over 300 times more massive than the Earth, and Uranus 15 times our mass.

Three of these extrasolar planets orbit the nearby star 61 Virginis, which is only about 28 light years away (that’s a stone’s throw in galactic terms). 61 Vir has been a target for planet hunters for some time because it’s very much like our Sun: while it has slightly less mass and is a tad less bright, its temperature is almost the exactly the same as the Sun’s. It’s about 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than the Sun. It’s bright (easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site), making it easy to study. It also has a very similar chemical composition as the Sun, which may be important in the planet-making business. And now we know it has planets! Little ones, too.

Here is a schematic of the system:

61Virbcd_orbits

Inner planets in our solar system are shown with dotted lines, and the three 61 Vir planets as solid lines. As you can see, they all orbit closer than Earth does to the Sun, and the third one out has a fairly elliptical orbit. In order from their star, the planets have masses of approximately, 5, 18, and 24 times the Earth’s mass (they may be somewhat more depending on our viewing geometry, which is difficult to determine). They orbit 61 Vir in 4, 38, and 124 days respectively. While all of these are far more massive than the Earth, they represent big steps forward in finding more Earthlike planets, since they are in fact low mass compared to other planets found, and the outer one takes longer to orbit than usual as well.

Interestingly, recent Spitzer Space Telescope observations indicate a fairly hefty ring of dust around 61 Vir as well, at a distance of about twice the distance of Neptune from the Sun. This probably comes from collisions of comets and asteroids, meaning that this system 300 trillion kilometers away really does look a lot like our own solar system.

On top of that, another sunlike star, HD 1461, was found to have at least one planet orbiting it. The planet has about 7.5 times the Earth’s mass, and orbits close in, taking six days to circle the star once. There may be two other planets orbiting this star as well, but the signals from them are just a bit too weak to be sure.

All of these planets were found by analyzing the stars’ light and looking for a periodic Doppler shift. As a planet orbits its star, it in turn pulls the star around very slightly, and that can be seen as a teeny shift in the wavelength of the starlight. And by teeny, I mean really teeny; it’s only been the past 15 or so years that this method has been refined enough to yield results.

So this is very cool, and brings us another step closer to what we all really want to find: a terrestrial planet orbiting a star in an Earthlike orbit. That doesn’t guarantee life — heck, it doesn’t even guarantee the planet will look anything like Earth at all (just take a peek at Venus and Mars to confirm that), but this new discovery does mean that lower-mass planets are abundant in the galaxy. And that’s very cool news indeed.

Orbital schematic credit: Chris Tinney

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Science

Comments (58)

Links to this Post

  1. Populär Astronomi - » Din guide till veckans planeter | December 16, 2009
  1. ZERO

    CORRECTION!

    Jupiter is more than 1,300 the size of Earth!!!

  2. This is the kind of post I really like to see here at Bad Astronomy. Really fascinating, exciting stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Chet Twarog

    “Three of these extrasolar planets orbit the nearby star 61 Virginis, which is only about 28 light years away (that’s a stone’s throw in galactic terms).”
    Even if we found an inhabitable planet closer than 4.2 ly with the WISE spacecraft, just how would we ever get a probe there?

  4. Zero, Jupiter is roughly 1300 times the SIZE of the earth, but only about 300 times the MASS of the earth. Jupiter is much less dense than our rocky home.

  5. Chet Twarog

    Zero, the article stated that “For comparison, Jupiter is over 300 times more massive than than the Earth, and Uranus 15 times our mass.”
    “Jupiter mass (MJ or MJUP) is 1.8986×10^27 kg OR 317.83 Earth mass or 1 Earth mass equals 0.00315 Jupiter masses.”
    Planet Name Mass (kg): Earth 5.974 × 10^24 VS Jupiter 1.899 × 10^27

  6. Neal

    Neptune is smaller but more massive than Uranus.

    (I recommend keeping that line on the tip of your tongue for the next telemarketer that interrupts dinner.)

  7. If we find a planet in the habitable zone anywhere nearby, the first step is to pepper it with radio signals. Then send a probe. The big question is how the heck do we power it? Our current radioisotope generators wouldn’t last the hundreds or thousands of years it’d take for the probe to make it there. There probably is something with lower level output that could do it… Hmmmmm….

  8. Sean

    Settle down, folks. Let’s settle Mars, first.

  9. zhaphod

    If we find a earth sized planet any where close by, first thing we should do is build a 100 to 200 meter class telescope and get a good picture of the planet. Also such a telescope would have other benefits too.

  10. David Braunstein

    Very cool. Good to hear about more multiple planet stars, and super earths. Hopefully there will be more direct imaging news of planets around other starts soon. Anymore news about the object sited close to Beta Pcitoris? Thanks again for the cool exoplanet news.

  11. T_U_T

    Q : Our current radioisotope generators wouldn’t last the hundreds or thousands of years it’d take for the probe to make it there.
    A : send a probe that can get there a few thousand times faster.

  12. While cool, I keep getting a buzzkill from a discovery like this one… Here is why..

    The search for habitable planets, in my book, is a result from the recognition that there will be a time when we have to leave this planet. That time is a billion years away or sooner, but we are very, very (can’t have too many “very’s”) far away from being able to do it.

    So finding a habitable planet around a star that is similar to our star and older, seems, well like a waste of time fantasizing about it as a future home.

    Well that is where my sigh from something like this comes from. however, It’s completely cool and it would be neat to find a planet with peeps on it (heck, I’d take a discovery of algae). That certainly satisfies the other reason we look for planets… it’s freaking awesome.

  13. Personally, I’m interested in the search for earthlike planets because of their potential to harbor alien life (even bacteria would be a worldview-changing discovery), and not at all for their potential as a future home for humans.

  14. After de-planetizing Pluto why should we believe anything these latter-day astrologers have to say?

  15. Nathan

    Phil: Greg Laughlin should get credit for that graphic, it comes from his blog.

  16. Cheri

    How long would it take radio and tv signals to reach that planet? I understand that the chance that if life on one of those planets had started and evolved the way it has on earth, it would be unlikely that, unless they were a very long lived civilization, our period of activity would overlap theirs. I do wonder, though.

  17. The Other Ian

    Q : Our current radioisotope generators wouldn’t last the hundreds or thousands of years it’d take for the probe to make it there.
    A : send a probe that can get there a few thousand times faster.

    The halflife of 238Pu is 87.7 years, meaning that after 87.7 years, the generator would be producing half its original energy output. So any trip taking longer than a century or so would simply be infeasible, and even that’s a stretch.

    To travel 28 light years in a century would require an average speed of 0.28c. The current speed of Voyager 1 is about 0.000057c. Obviously, we have a long way to go before we can do that.

  18. Quiet Desperation

    I see the star is in that blue region of space where Duck Dodgers and other cartoon characters hang out.

    That time is a billion years away or sooner, but we are very, very (can’t have too many “very’s”) far away from being able to do it.

    Can’t quite get myself to lie awake at night worrying about that, you know?

    Settle down, folks. Let’s settle Mars, first.

    I’m sorry, but we’re out of money. Please call again later.

  19. DaveH

    This is news I always love. The discovery of new planets give the expanse of the universe beyond the solar system a sense of place, rather than something we only look out on.

    My NASA planetquest widget ( http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/widget.cfm ) still says 403, but I look forward to it catching up. 407 extrasolar planets.

  20. Jim Craig

    Zero, please read this again. He didn’t say that Jupiter was 300 times the volume of the Earth. He said it was 300 times the mass. Jupiter is mostly gases (hydrogen and helium) so it would figure that it would be less dense. So 1300 times the volume still spells out 300 times the mass.

    Phil does this for a living so I tend to trust his numbers and, on those rare occasions he does find mistakes, he corrects them.

    Spelling “CORRECTION!” in all caps doesn’t make you right. It only makes you loud.

  21. T_U_T

    The halflife of 238Pu is 87.7 years, meaning that after 87.7 years, the generator would be producing half its original energy output. So any trip taking longer than a century or so would simply be infeasible, and even that’s a stretch.

    A nuclear reactor can be shut down and restarted without losing energy while shut down. So if you restart it after a few months, do a system check, charge batteries, and then shut down for a few months, you can happily go for centuries.

    To travel 28 light years in a century would require an average speed of 0.28c. The current speed of Voyager 1 is about 0.000057c. Obviously, we have a long way to go before we can do that.

    1.step. cure the radiophobia pandemy
    2.step. develop nuclear drive
    3.step. launch it and it will accelerate the probe to 5 – 10 % c

  22. andy

    Wonder how stable the habitable zone of 61 Virginis is in the light of the known planets there. Presumably prospects for an Earthlike planet aren’t particularly good there, with an eccentric super-Neptune crashing around near the inner edge. Oh well. Plus if the 3-planet model for HD 1461 is correct, the habitable zone there is going to be unstable too.

    Plus we have the open question of whether planets of 5 Earth masses are truly terrestrial planets or if they are scaled down versions of Neptune. Sure, CoRoT-7b seems to be rocky, but that planet is located in such a close orbit to its star that it could plausibly be a remnant core of a more massive planet that has been evaporated.

  23. StevoR

    What a great news day!!!

    I watched the WISE space observatory lift off last night & now I’m reading about some superb new exoplanet discoveries -the first exoplanet news here in a while. :-D

    Thanks BA. Again you – & the scientists responsible for all this to who I offer my congratulations and thanks – have made my day! :-)

  24. Messier TidyUpper

    What are the exact spectral types of these stars, please? Anyone know?

    For the record & for ‘compare & contrasting’ purposes, the masses of the gas & ice giant planets are : (in most to least massive order)

    Jupiter 318 x Earth mass

    Saturn 95 x Earth mass

    Neptune 17 x Earth mass

    &

    Ouranos 14 x Earth mass

    The next most massive planet in our solar system is Earth (er ..1 x Earth mass obviously! ;-) ) with Venus just a tiny smidgin less massive then Mars much less massive than us ( 1/4 ~ish?) & Mercury considerably less massive again then Eris, Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, Sedna and Ceres much, much less massive again. (Afraid I can’t quote exact masses for the rocky and ice dwarf planets from memory and haven’t yet looked ‘em up. If anyone cares to add specific numbers there please do.)

    Now a reminder here that the exoplanets of 61 Virg are roughly five, twenty & twenty-five times Earth’s mass – & possibly more as these are minimum figures. So at least the latter two there are more massive than Neptune. Thus, surely, we have in their cases likely gas giants that are between Neptune and Saturn in size but orbiting very much nearer their host star.

    As for the 5 x E mass “Super-Earth”, well, to my way of thought, we simply do NOT really know what such in-between planets are like. My guess is they *may* resemble Gliese 436 b ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gliese_436_b ) and be hot ice /water worlds or “gas dwarfs” or Neptune crossed with Venus hybrids. Or given its location, nestled right up against the blazing stellar fire even a “Super-Mercury” in nature.

    BTW. Has anyone calculated these planets likely temperatures yet?

    Therefore, I think in one way this is sort of disappointing because it makes the chances of truly Earth-like as opposed to mini-Neptunes around these stars more remote. As I understand it, the existence and orbits of these worlds prevent – at least for 61 Virg – habitable Earths around these stars. :-(

    However, its still amazing & magnificent news that these worlds have been discovered at all and I do find them intriguing and worthwhile in their own right. :-)

    Plus, of course any hypothetical moons of these worlds could be another fascinating story again! ;-)

  25. Jay

    Just too damn cool. As a kid, I never didn’t think there weren’t other planets out there, but now that we’re proving it — so damn awesome.

  26. amphiox

    I don’t see any potential “second earth’s” as even remotely feasible or practical as new homes for humanity, for the simple reason that the technologies we would need to master to be able to mount any credible colonization attempt are the same technologies that will allow us to survive quite comfortably in space without planets at all, except as the occasional supply depot, for which an earthlike planet is not required.

    That is, by the time we figure out what it takes to get there, we will, by the same token, not need them anymore.

    They will more probably (and profitably) be objects of scientific fascination and study, with regards to things like alien biology. Tourist attractions, maybe?

  27. Brian Too

    Next step: Demote these low mass planets! I’m sure that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is ready to take on the challenge.

    Why these imposter planets aren’t really planets at all, they’re, they’re, they’re SUPER extra-solar Oort cloud dwarf planetismals!! Yeah, that’s the ticket!
    ;-)

  28. tacitus

    The Kepler mission is due to announce its preliminary haul of planets next month (though none of them will be Earth-like since they will all have very short period orbits) so things are beginning to get interesting.

    I have to chuckle as the enthusiasm in some of the comments. It is a little premature to be talking about venturing outside the solar system. Just getting a 1-pixel photograph of an Earth-like exoplanet is likely to take another 20 – 30 years, and I suspect it will be a couple of centuries at least before we launch our first interstellar probe, unless we find a way to break the light-speed barrier.

    I don’t think we’ll be sending anything anywhere until it takes less than 100 years to get there*. Scientists aren’t going to spend much time on designing missions that even their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren aren’t going to see the culmination of.

    * I should add that if we succeed in extending our lifespan by several times in the future, then our patience will also be extended similarly.

  29. CP

    All ellipses are equally elliptical.

    As for eccentricity, the orbit of 61 Vir d is definitely not drawn properly. If 61 Vir is at one focus of the ellipse, the eccentricity should be much greater than the apparent value of 1.

  30. dre

    Aaaaaagh! I feel like I’m living in

    THE FUTURE !

  31. Petrolonfire

    @ 27. Brian Too Says:

    Next step: Demote these low mass planets! I’m sure that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is ready to take on the challenge. Why these imposter planets aren’t really planets at all, they’re, they’re, they’re SUPER extra-solar Oort cloud dwarf planetismals!! Yeah, that’s the ticket!

    Ssshhhhh! (Index finger to lips gesture.)

    Don’t give the IAU or Neil DeGassy Tyson any bad ideas! ;-)

  32. Why do the extrasolar planet hunters always like to focus on SUNLIKE stars?

    Since our detection methods currently favor the discovery of planets much closer to the star than Earth is to the Sun, we should be focusing on DIMMER stars. Like late K or even early M dwarfs. That way, if we find a rocky body in a close orbit around one of those stars, its orbit will be closer to that star’s Comfort Zone, which would increase the chances of it being inhabited.

    Plus, lower-mass stars will show a more severe blueshift and redshift from a given-mass planet orbiting them, so detection should be slightly easier.

  33. Part of me would love to be able to image an earthlike planet orbiting a nearby star…perhaps with its night side all lit up with purdy electric lights.

    But then I think about all the nutjobs who’d probably start slaughtering each other over whether those lights spelled out Jeebus or Mohammed or whatever.

  34. Just something else I realised: it would take less than 280,000 years for material to travel between 61 Vir and our solar system at 30km/s, the speed of Earth’s orbit around the sun. Makes me wonder where many of the comets to pass through our solar system originated!

  35. Next step: Demote these low mass planets! I’m sure that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is ready to take on the challenge.

    Low mass my a**, they’re only low mass compared to Jupiter. Compared to Earth, they’re HUGE. Tyson won’t be touching them. He only demotes the unworthy. ;)

  36. tacitus

    Why do the extrasolar planet hunters always like to focus on SUNLIKE stars?

    The short answer is that we know, for certain, that life (i.e. us) can develop and flourish on an Earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like star. We don’t have that valuable data point for low mass red dwarfs.

    Another reason for find Earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like stars is that there is valuable science to be had by comparing Earth with other planets life our own. We study Mars and Venus, in part, for this reason. The more we learn of these other planet, the more we can learn about the history of our own planet.

    Finally, I think there is also likely to be a little rivalry going on. The first team to find a true Earth analog will go down in the annals of history.

    But there are teams looking for (and finding) planets orbiting low mass stars, any they may well be the first to find an Earth mass planet within a star’s habitable zone. The problem is that many red dwarfs are flare star or are otherwise less stable than the Sun, so even if we find planets within a habitable zone, we won’t know for certain if conditions are conducive for life to develop.

    Still, it’s all very exciting, and I think that by the time the next decade is over, we will have a catalog of planets that is well into the thousands.

  37. ndt

    16. Cheri Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    How long would it take radio and tv signals to reach that planet?

    27.8 years (it’s 27.8 light years away, and radio waves travel through space at the speed of light).

  38. andy

    Why do the extrasolar planet hunters always like to focus on SUNLIKE stars?

    Because lower mass stars are fainter (thus harder to get spectra), and higher mass stars have fewer spectral lines and higher rotation periods (which blur out the few spectral lines present), at least when they are on the main sequence – planets are known around subgiants and giant stars which are more massive than the Sun for instance.

  39. davem

    @T_U_T: The trouble with sending probes to a star 28 light years away is that it has a) to spend as much time decelerating as it does accelerating, b) To be completely autonomous. The latter because any signal to alter its path will take 28 years to reach it. Such a signal would only be sent if we had received a signal from the craft that started out 28 years earlier… Even a completely autonomous craft could only report back to us 28 years after it landed.

  40. Spectroscope

    @ 24. Messier TidyUpper asks:

    What are the exact spectral types of these stars, please? Anyone know?

    Not sure about HD 1461, but 61 Virginis is a G5 V star or a G5 class yellow dwarf that’s just a little cooler, dimmer and less massive than our Sun which is a G2 V yellow dwarf star. Its also a bit older than our Sun 6 billion years by one estimate around 8 billion by another and is a stable good star for possible life. Pity the planetary system seems to rule life (or earthlike worlds) out although as noted the moons of the outermost giant there may hold potential habitability~wise. :-)

    It says so in the paper the BA links to there.

  41. I think the most exiting part is finding planets that are of longer period, planets with years closer to that of those that orbit Sol. Smaller mass, longer year seems to be where life would be.

  42. Chris

    Has anyone asked, or answered, the question of why all these planets astronomers are finding have such short orbits around their stars? Is it that our solar system is odd, and the others are normal? Makes me wonder if the formula/calculation they are using isn’t off somewhere…

  43. Chris A.

    @CP (#29):

    “All ellipses are equally elliptical.”

    Oh, come on. You know that, in casual parlance, an ellipse that’s very nearly circular appears “more circular” and “less elliptical.” Besides, a circle is just an ellipse with e=0, so is it just as elliptical as an ellipse with e=0.8? Which brings us to your second point.

    “As for eccentricity, the orbit of 61 Vir d is definitely not drawn properly. If 61 Vir is at one focus of the ellipse, the eccentricity should be much greater than the apparent value of 1.”

    You meant 0, right? An ellipse with eccentricity of 1 is a parabola.

  44. tacitus

    Because the shorter the orbit, the faster they can be found. It’s just far easier to find planets with a period of a few days than it is those with a period of a year. The discovery of so many “hot Jupiters” was a surprise, and showed how little we know about how solar systems develop, but it’s simple way to early to tell if ours is “odd” or not.

    The Kepler mission should be able to detect planets like Earth — the same size and in the same orbit — if they do exist, and the total we find with that mission should go a long way to determining how common solar systems like ours are. If we find don’t find any, or only one or two, then the chances are that we are the odd man out.

  45. Polux

    It is urgently imperative that we restore and maintain earth’ s atmosphere so future generations can have a chance to plan the big move. As of now, what took eons of building is being “destroyed in seconds” and we are going nowhere too fast. The most obvious moving project has to be to Mars; totally feasible, before anything goes haywire on our probably not so unique planet. And who is to say that somewhere out there, living beings aren’t facing the same fate, looking to relocate before the end of livability on there home planet. We are cornered and time plays the biggest role; for sure, we are physically stuck in our solar system, never mind visiting our galaxy and beyond. I would submit that the next astronomical move would be to land (or crash) a fleet of space vehicles loaded with living primitive genetic organisms, and perhaps animals, and lots of water aboard to start the seeding on some foreign but friendly environment !!!! Come to think about it, could that be how it all started here with the same intents from interplanetary ancestors ? So let’ s keep peering trough the vastness of the universe we can see, for a sign of a long lost relative messenger…

  46. pupster

    Conan voice: *In the year 2000…..*

  47. mike burkhart

    There is just one thing if there is life on these planets it could be intelegent and if that is the case I don’t think we should invade and take over some one else planet we need a prime drective like in Star Trek (no interference with a devloping cluture)

  48. Jess Tauber

    To get to one of these places in a reasonable time create nanomachines and make zillions of copies of them (different types, and enough to counter losses or malfunctions during the trip), then ramp them up to high fractions of C to shoot them at the target. They’d need to be complex enough to be able to a) communicate with each other, b) reorient themselves, c) have enough mass or stored energy (active nuclei?) to change their velocity. When they get near their target they find each other, self-assemble, and use redundant mass to decelerate.

    When they get there they find more mass on low-gravity outer objects to replicate, branch out, and figure out what to do next, perhaps including cooking up a batch of human explorers from scratch.

  49. Gary Ansorge

    The only truly viable energy option for an interstellar probe would be fusion power. Fission powered vehicles have that inevitable half life problem to contend with. Plutonium 239(the kind that can go boom) has a half life of 24,000 years, which seems like a long time, but in terms of interstellar travel is barely usable. Even if it’s left in storage, without being bombarded by slow neutrons, it will still decay. Slow neutron bombardment accelerates the rate of consumption and energy generation. Fusion powered craft can accumulate more fuel from the interstellar medium(from the Bussard ram effect) and H2 does not decay in route.

    Before we can effectively mount interstellar exploration, we must first develop thermonuclear fusion and from that we will likely develop space colonies(because that power source would enable individual access to space). By the time we have all that in place, the first of our interstellar probes should be arriving at some nearby systems. THEN we can enjoy the far sightedness of our ancestors.

    GAry 7

  50. ZERO

    CORRECT!

    1,300 time the volume but 300 times the mass!

  51. andy

    Heh heh heh, right on cue… the second transiting planet with a mass less than that of Uranus has been found, orbiting the red dwarf star GJ 1214. It’s a 6.5 Earth-mass “mini-Neptune” with a radius that indicates a hydrogen-helium envelope is present.

  52. Markle

    37. ndt Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    16. Cheri Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    How long would it take radio and tv signals to reach that planet?

    27.8 years (it’s 27.8 light years away, and radio waves travel through space at the speed of light).

    Which means it’s only 6.5 years or so before they’re in for a serious rickrolling. Man, are they gonna be ticked!

  53. At what point would a planet become too massive to support life? Could a planet 5X, or 25X more massive that Earth support intelligent bi-pedal (assuming this is the only type of life that could build a technological society)?

    Markle:
    Rickrolling causes an interstellar armada to invade Earth to put a stop to this insanity! However, before they totally annihilate us, they discover LOL Cats, and are overcome by the Cuteness!

  54. grunchliek

    Considering that we don’t even go to the moon anymore…our space exploration “squads” are going to be a little late when extinction on a massive scale visits this world…either through space or our own doing…

    Lets not be surprised at all that we are not getting anywhere but only finding these planets that supposedly could hold an earth like environments!

    Lets spend some more money on warfare and finding new ways to make one another miserable, instead of going to the stars….which is where we will eventually have to look at for our survival!

  55. Plutonium being from Pluto

    This news – and especially the Aussie connection – has been noted on a major online news server in Australia (ninemsn) see :

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/technology/984735/scientists-discover-earth-like-planet-study

    We’ve also just had the news broken today about a new exoplanet that is low mass, low density and apparently *definitely* water-rich : GJ 1214. :-D

    See : http://news.ninemsn.com.au/technology/984735/scientists-discover-earth-like-planet-study

    for more. (I’ve posted about this on a couple of other fresher threads too – hope that’s ok.)

    This is making for a great week exoplanetary discoveries~wise! 8)

    PS. @ 53 Andy & 54 Markle : D’oh! Just seen you’ve beaten me to it. My source linked there says GJ 1214 is 42 rather than 28 light years distant. Of course, I – & / or my source – could well be wrong about that. Maybe they just got GJ’s distance confused with the meaning of life! ;-)

  56. Arion

    At 17 Km/s, Voyager 1′s current speed, it would take 783,418. 3 years to go the 42 light years (420 Trillion Km) between Earth and GJ 1214 b, correct?

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