Europeans are taking the asteroid threat seriously

By Phil Plait | August 17, 2011 10:30 am

I’ve been scratching my head for a long time, trying to figure out why NASA hasn’t been taking the idea of preventing asteroid impacts more seriously. This idea has everything you’d want in a project: it’s cool (I mean, c’mon, we’re talking asteroid impacts!), it’s doable, it’s not terribly expensive, it’s already on the public’s mind thanks to Hollywood, and there’s always the eensy-weensy possibility that you might save all of humanity.

Yet, despite this, it’s been an uphill battle to get NASA to pay attention. While the space agency has been very good about supporting early detection programs, the support for a space mission to prevent an impact has been lacking. Of course, given their relatively small budget (<1% of the federal spending) I imagine taking on anything like this would be difficult.

So I’m pretty chuffed that the European Space Agency is looking into saving our collective skins. They’ve being studying the feasibility of a mission to test methods of asteroid impact mitigation, including a very very cool space mission they’ve dubbed Don Quijote (first proposed in 2002, and may launch sometime after 2020). It’s actually two separate spacecraft: one to impact a small near-Earth asteroid, and another to monitor the event carefully to see what happens, including how much the orbit of the asteroid was changed.

The idea here isn’t complicated: if we see an asteroid on an impact trajectory with Earth, we want to change the orbit so it doesn’t hit us. We could try blowing it up, but that’s actually a bad idea: at best it creates a lot of debris that can still smack into us, some of which may still be big enough to do us serious harm. So a better idea is to make sure it doesn’t hit us at all.

Impacting an incoming asteroid is a good way to do this. It probably won’t shatter the rock, and if done with enough advance time the orbit can be changed enough to prevent an impact with Earth. Think of it this way: imagine you’re crossing the street. If you see a car really close, you have to move quickly, but if it’s far away you can take your time. If you have enough lead time, even a small change in the car’s velocity can make the difference between a hit and miss. Slamming a space probe into an asteroid changes its velocity, and if it changes enough we’d prevent an impact.

The problem is we’ve never tried this, so it’s not clear how big an impact you need. Don Quijote would be a big step toward that goal. By making extremely precise measurements of the impact and the change in the asteroid’s velocity (which may be impossible to do from the ground due to the tiny orbital changes made) we can get a handle on how well we can do this.

One recent paper published looked into what sort of instruments would be needed to achieve the goals of the mission. They looked at deflecting two different asteroids; they have different sizes (320 vs. 680 meters in diameter), masses, and orbits as well: one is on a more elliptical orbit making it harder to get to but easier to deflect, and the other on a more circular orbit that’s easier to get to and harder to deflect. This study helps clarify what equipment will need to be built to do all this, and is a great step toward understanding what must be done.

Mind you, NASA did something like this back in 2005 with the Deep Impact mission, but there the primary goal wasn’t seeing how much the orbit of a comet was changed after an impactor whacked it, but instead to try to dig up surface material and see what lay beneath. Also, comets vent material which changes their orbit all the time, making it difficult to know just how much of a difference Deep Impact made. Don Quijote would avoid that by hitting an inert rock.

I certainly hope the ESA continues to fund this project, and that it eventually gets the green light. I would love to see something like this happening soon. It’s pretty unlikely that an asteroid big enough to really hurt us will be spotted in the next few years, but the thing is, one will eventually turn up. While it may not be tonight, over the next few decades the odds go up considerably. Since it generally takes many years for a mission to get from an idea to launch — and many more to get to its target and do what needs to be done — the sooner we get started on this the better.

Image credit: ESA – AOES Medialab. Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Smithsonian Magazine.


Related posts:

- New meteor shower points to a future close encounter
- Blastroid
- New study finds giant impacts aren’t periodic
- No, 2005 YU 55 won’t destroy the Earth

Comments (49)

  1. BA sez, “it’s not terribly expensive…”

    Right… like you have any idea how much Bruce Willis costs. :)

  2. lewikee

    I’ve always been perplexed as to why this hasn’t been the number one goal of any space agency since they’ve had the capability. The potential benefits of a mars mission are nothing compared to the potential benefits of preventing an asteroid impact. It’s 2011 and we still haven’t tried hitting an asteroid to see how we’d perform when it really matters?

  3. BJN

    I think it’s great that other nations are stepping up while we continue our Great Decline. I’m not sure about the “Don Quixote” moniker, however. Tilting at windmills isn’t a good metaphor for research that could prevent an impact disaster. Sure, the odds are small, but the consequences of a big impact are so dire that this relatively tiny investment is really cheap insurance.

    The odds are that we’ll do ourselves in long before this planet is visited by “death from the skies”, but it’s much cheaper to explore asteroid dynamics than it is to improve on our shortsighted species.

  4. Mejilan

    I’m all for using science to further our understanding of the blowing up of things. Any things, as it were! Explosions in space are never uncalled for! BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!

  5. Keith Bowden

    What “Boooom”? It’s in space! :) That’s why we won’t do it – it isn’t spectacular enough! Have NASA call Jerry Bruckheimer… It’ll be expensive, spectacular and it will make noise!

  6. UmTutSut

    Is any of the Deep Impact/EPOXI data useful? Or was the rock too big and impactor mass too small?

  7. Wayne Cobol

    It’s awesome that they named this project Don Quijote. Europe wins 1 internets.

  8. Is there any way to double up on functionality? For example, how different would something like Kepler or Dawn have needed to be to use it as an experimental asteroid impactor after its primary mission completed? Or would the two functions be incompatible from a design perspective?

  9. parsec

    In theory a good project but what if the impact changes actualy changes the asteroid trajectory- towards earth?

  10. Eric Polino

    Another thought that I’ve not seen in a movie, or any other discussion would be to plant a probe on the surface of a potentially dangerous rock and fire the engine essentially pushing it over time. Could we think of a thrust mechanism efficient enough to provide enough push? Granted an impact such as the one planned by the ESA would transfer all momentum of the craft into the combined mass of the craft and the rock, but it’s a one shot deal. You don’t get to hit again. With a craft constantly pushing you can increase thrust using of course solar energy to aid this thrust. IDK, it’s a thought.

  11. What would it take to capture one of these into geosynchronous orbit or into one of the Lagrange Points? (like Apophis for example as it’s the one that will approach the closest)

  12. Takeru K

    Instrumental limitations aside, the I think the lifetime of Kepler’s mission is limited by:

    a) the funding to maintain the mission (ground crews etc.)

    b) as Kepler drifts further and further away from Earth on its orbit, the signal we can receive decreases! Right now, Kepler has to stop observations for approximately 1 day/month to download data to Earth. Eventually this number will increase such that the downtime is too long and would limit the periods of transits that we can observe. Eventually, Kepler won’t even be able to communicate with Earth at all!

    I am not too sure about this, but I think Kepler is not designed to observe objects so close to us (i.e. asteroids). There are already a lot of programs currently running that are designed to find near-Earth asteroids. Next year, Canada is launching a micro-satellite, NEOSSat, to do this cheaply!

    @10. Eric: A rocket is not even necessary, especially since it could take a massive amount of fuel to accelerate a massive asteroid. But, a similar idea is the use of a “gravitational tugboat”, see http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0509595 for example

  13. HvP

    I’m in favor of “Don Quixote” being the name of the one that attacks the asteroid only if the one that sits back and watches is named “Sancho.”

  14. HvP

    Ok, just checked the ESA site and they are named “Don Quixote”, “Sancho” and “Hidalgo”. Those snarky scientists ;)

  15. Marc

    @Brian Lang

    I was recently talking about that with someone, my idea was to lasso an asteroid with a cable and use it as the counterweight for a space elevator. 2 birds with one stone.

  16. Chip

    Recently Paul Krugman mentioned, only as an analogy, that an alien invasion would pull economies together by uniting countries, eliminating high unemployment, because we’d all be involved in the war effort. As far as actual threats from space go, asteroid impact is much more of a guaranteed reality. Not a question of “if” but “when”.

    However, even if an asteroid was discovered that was going to hit us in 100, 300 or 1000 years – humans just don’t plan ahead on those time scales. Nevertheless, projects designed just to prepare deflection technologies for large asteroids that threaten extinction, could provide a bunch of jobs.

  17. kevbo

    It might be simpler to nudge the trajectory a bit so that instead of having to miss the earth completely, it would impact, say… Texas, or Kansas…

  18. Daniel J. Andrews

    Maybe this is why NASA isn’t getting funding? :)

    theonion.com/articles/republicans-vote-to-repeal-obamabacked-bill-that-w,19025/

  19. feh

    @ Eric Polino

    I see you’ve been playing Mass Effect. ;)

  20. DigitalAxis

    @Eric:

    That would pretty much be the same as the time+fuel cost to get a space probe out there, plus the additional fuel to push the asteroid around. This method uses just the gravitational attraction of the spacecraft to draw the asteroid off course. A sufficiently massive spacecraft would require a lot of energy to launch anyway (maybe the weight could be fuel?) but we wouldn’t have to worry about the logistics of landing and positioning a rocket on the surface.

    Affixing a rocket (probably even an ion drive) would shift the trajectory faster than just a spacecraft alone… so it would be a nice backup strategy if we didn’t have much time to re-orient the spacecraft.

  21. R2K

    “We could try blowing it up, but that’s actually a bad idea: at best it creates a lot of debris that can still smack into us, some of which may still be big enough to do us serious harm.”

    Common misconception that gets spread around because most people, even scientists, have an irrational fear of nuclear weapons.

    Debris from a mass ejection redirection, using a large nuclear explosion, would almost certainly be ejected at meters per second or greater velocities. Almost all of these scraps would quickly spread out past the diameter of the Earth.

    It is funny that we are focusing on redirecting a fastball with drops of water, rather than the grenades we already have on hand. Nuclear weapons just are not PC anymore?

    There is indeed something to be said for detonating a very large explosive (to billion ton yield) deep within the rubble-pile asteroids or comets. Not only will it vaporize KMs of rock and ice directly, but it will also send the bulk of the object away from the detonation at meters per second or more. More than enough, given a few months warning time, to get the job done.

    This is one thing that deep impact and Armageddon actually got right!

  22. Keith Bowden

    @Eric
    Another problem with that is that these things spin; mounting propulsion on the surface would simply make it more erratic. The odds of a pole being sufficiently level/stable enough to affix an engine would be (dare I say it?) astronomical.

    But fuel is the bigger factor.

  23. rob

    my first thought is that an impact wouldn’t make a big enough change.

    the total mass in the asteroid belt is about 10^21 kg. about half of this is taken up by the biggest 7 asteroids. there are estimated 30,000,000 chunks out there less than 500 m in diameter. doing a little order of magnitude calcs gives an average mass of about 10^13 kg.

    if you have a 1000 kg impactor hit the asteroid, conservation of momentum for a perfectly inelastic collision says that the the delta v of the asteroid will go as the impactor mass divided by asteroid mass times the impactor velocity. the mass ratio is about 10^-10. if the impactor is going 10 km/s then the delta v is about 10^-6 m/s.

    Would that be enough to appreciably change the orbit? especially if it managed to get pretty close before detection?

    then again, i assume this issue has been examined and the Europeans think it is feasible.

  24. Thomas Siefert

    It will not be Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis who save the earth. It will be Jason Statham and Gérard Depardieu (he’s just done the European version of ‘Snakes on a Plane’).

  25. Jamey

    @R2K – please try doing your math again. While you’re at it – check the records on the underground nuclear testing.

    A blast on, or within, a rubble-pile body would result in a very small fraction of the body being ejected, while the majority would maintain its self-gravitation and re-settle back in, with the majority of the energy having gone into jostling the pieces around, and pieces scrapping against other pieces, making smaller pieces.

    The largest nuclear warhead ever detonated was the Tsar Bomba, a 50 megaton yield device (dialed down from the original 100 megaton design yield). It would vaporise megatons of rock and ice – temporarily – but that would be a hollow of only a few hundred meters – not the kilometers you’re talking about.

    Surface detonated, a huge fraction of the energy would be reflected, and again, most of the rest would be dissipated in the fragments jostling around.

    This is one of the reasons the gravity tug idea is being considered so strongly – besides allowing for the use of high efficiency, long duration thrusts, the jostling is kept to a minimum as the entire body is affected by the gravitational pull as a unit.

    Bigger boom is not always better, unless you get to *REALLY* bigger boom, and then it may cause other problems as well.

  26. Top 10 Reasons Why the US Asteroid Impact Mitigation Mission Failed:

    1. All the mission did was hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the asteroid.
    2. Successfully invaded the asteroid, but lacked an exit strategy.
    3. Congress zeroed the budget halfway through.
    4. Asteroid is welcomed because it hastens the end times, Revelation 8:10-11.
    5. Republicans feared that allowing the asteroid to be deflected would “give Obama a win”.
    6. Asteroid skeptics argued that volcanoes emit more rocks into the atmosphere each year without human extinction.
    7. Deep Impact-style rocket named “Messiah” is grounded by ACLU for violating the first amendment.
    8. Invisible hand of the market really dropped the ball on this one.
    9. Unable to resolve debate over whether it’s an asteroid or a dwarf planet.
    10. They retired the space shuttle without a replacement.

  27. truthspeaker

    11. They attacked an asteroid that wasn’t on a trajectory to earth, justifying it with trumped-up math that said it was, diverting resources from the mission to divert the asteroid that really was a threat.

  28. vince charles

    Jamey beat me to it, but…

    “This is one thing that deep impact and Armageddon actually got right!”

    Armageddon? Congratulations, R2K, you’ve just disqualified yourself from further analysis.

    The University of Iowa looked at this 2009-2010. Sending an impactor to do a subsurface detonation is surprisingly hard, due to the speeds involved. The missions literally exceed current technologies, at least if you demand any real reliabilities.

    Even without a direct hit, a close nuclear blast isn’t the slam dunk that gawkers and fanboys think it is. As Jamey mentions, small Solar-System bodies don’t just vaporize like in dogfight scenes from sci-fi. For one, both rock and ice (to say nothing of nickel-iron) make good blast shielding.

  29. I’m wondering if you could deflect an asteroid using a giant paintball gun rather than an impactor, employing the Yarkovsky effect to change the orbit. And if so, what color would you need to use?

  30. Dwight

    I agree with Jamey (#25).

    Rather than hit the asteroid with a satellite moving at ultra-high velocity (like, what are the odds we could actually impact the rock), carefully maneuver a big nuke into place (stick it with a big wad of space bubblegum).

  31. gss_000

    Well, there are big disagreements on whether this mission is worth the finds right now. I’ve seen comments by some scientists that say Deep Impact gave us enough info that money should now be spent on early detection. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say NASA isn’t doing anything, especially when there are missions like OSIRIS-REx and a possible manned mission to an asteroid that would also help things out.

  32. Jamey

    I’m not sure the asteroid mission is really a good one. We need to ask for any of these programs – what’s the next step, and what does this mission really do to advance towards that next step? We’ve got an asteroid picked out, and we want to go there, plant the flag, and “gain knowledge about operating near an asteroid”. But where do we go from there? Did we pick this asteroid with an eye towards follow up missions to maneuver it into Earth orbit? Are we going to do something else with it?

    This is why I think we need a Lunar base – it serves as a platform for doing more things – things that can lead to much more development of both Luna, and orbital space. And as opposed to the Mars Direct program – if there are problems, a mission can reach the Moon in a couple of days, instead of three months minimum.

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    Good to hear. :-)

    The USA & Europe both seem to have their economic woes taking first priority now but I’d love to see Western nations continue investing in science particularly space exploration, development & technology – especially given the threat of extinction that is posed by asteroid impacts generally. Methinks, that *is* an existential threat that Humanity (incl. our Wstern civilisation) does need to take very seriously and find ways of countering without any doubt.

    Of course the USA, via its national govt agency NASA even, is still doing *something* asteroid studies~wise currently. After all, it’s got Dawn orbiting Vesta hasn’t it? ;-)

  34. flip

    My uneducated guess at why it’s not funded is hope and fear. Space agencies tend to be all about ‘hope’, that is, discovery, exploration, ‘reaching for the stars’. A device that avoids doomsday is all about fear, and nobody is interested in funding something that has to do with doomsdays. … Unless of course, it has to do with wars and stuff down here on Earth.

    I reckon it’d be easier to get funding happen if the asteroid was proven to have alien life forms on it. Even if they were bacteria-sized.

    But I think the saddest thing is that doing these types of things may have other uses sooner: namely, more research and understanding for a future time when we are living in space, or using non-Earth sites for resources. Knowing how to avoid collisions would be applicable not just in the future, but for now, considering the ISS and previous collisions with various objects out there in space. And that’s something that would definitely appeal to the ones in charge.

    @R2K

    Phil was not referring to the problems of nuclear weaponry, but the fact that something exploding overhead – ie, a giant chunk of rock – produces little chunks of rock that then fall very fast into potentially urban areas. Rocks on fire + houses = damage.

    Nuclear or not, doing something like that seems a little silly, especially if you take into account that this doesn’t just include the small asteroids, but the ones that cause mass extinction events. Clouds of ash doesn’t sound like fun, nor does panic, fright or large migrations because of panic/fright/whatever. I’m not a scientist and even I get that. I think I’ll agree with the scientist’s opinion and the ‘common misconception’. PS. You might want to read the BA’s commentary on the movie Armageddon before continuing on; it can be found at his other website, linked to on the right-hand side of this blog.

    EDIT: Oops, been beaten to it by Jamey, @25. Also, if I’m wrong, please someone let me know. The above is based on my vague recollection of previous posts on asteroid impacts, but I’m probably off the mark.

  35. adam

    the united states cant do anything cool

  36. Messier Tidy Upper

    Tangentially on topic~ish check out :

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/08/would_neil_degrasse_tyson_plea.php

    In case folks haven’t already seen it on Pharyngula.

    What else could we have done with all the money that’s being wasted on things like the bank bail out?

    Things like James Webb space telescope – or /and asteroid impact prevention studies.

    I’m not at all a Tyson fan – see :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/08/05/cosmos-will-hit-the-air-once-again/#comment-403985

    & then # 87 on that thread too for why.

    However, I do agree completely with what he said there in that one clip.

    BTW. Vf gung ovg nobhg gur $ 850 zvyyvba onax onvy bhg zbarl ernpuvat Irahf gehr be abg? Nalbar xabj?

    Cut’n'paste into :

    http://www.rot13.com/index.php

    to decipher. Done to prevent spoilers. ;-)

  37. Josh

    Of course, if it is done properly, this will never “save the world”. Every few decades an asteroid will have a 1 in 10 chance of hitting us and they will divert it. Then everyone will be asking why we waste money on the project when no asteroid ever comes anywhere close to hitting us.

  38. CB

    Common misconception that gets spread around because most people, even scientists, have an irrational fear of nuclear weapons.

    Heh, that’s a common misconception. No, it’s because they have a rational understanding of the actual effects of a nuclear weapon and the amount of energy needed to actually disrupt a large impactor. Phil was quite gung-ho about the nuke option in his Bad Universe show (the truth is that many scientists have an irrational love of explosions), but it turns out it just isn’t going to work. Especially not for the rocks big enough for an extinction-level event. Sorry! I was hoping the answer would be as simple as “nuke it!” too!

    This is one thing that deep impact and Armageddon actually got right!

    LOL! No seriously, I LOLed IRL. That’s just precious. If you think even your hypothetical Gigaton nuke would have a significant effect on a Texas-sized asteroid, much less save us with only months to spare, then it would appear you and Michael Bay share the common misconception that nukes are magical all-explodey devices.

  39. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    Yet, despite this, it’s been an uphill battle to get NASA to pay attention.

    What this needs is for some astronomer dude – preferably one who has worked with NASA in the past – to write a book about the dangers posed by stuff hitting the Earth from space.
    ;-)

  40. Nigel Depledge

    Parsec (9) said:

    In theory a good project but what if the impact changes actualy changes the asteroid trajectory- towards earth?

    I daresay the mission scientists have thought of this already.

  41. Nigel Depledge

    Eric Polino (10) said:

    Another thought that I’ve not seen in a movie, or any other discussion would be to plant a probe on the surface of a potentially dangerous rock and fire the engine essentially pushing it over time. Could we think of a thrust mechanism efficient enough to provide enough push? Granted an impact such as the one planned by the ESA would transfer all momentum of the craft into the combined mass of the craft and the rock, but it’s a one shot deal. You don’t get to hit again. With a craft constantly pushing you can increase thrust using of course solar energy to aid this thrust. IDK, it’s a thought.

    This is actually considered to be one of the less good options. The reason being, you would need that thrust to go directly through the centre of mass of the rock to avoid making the rock tumble chaotically.

  42. Nigel Depledge

    Brian Lang (11) said:

    What would it take to capture one of these into geosynchronous orbit or into one of the Lagrange Points? (like Apophis for example as it’s the one that will approach the closest)

    More fuel than is really feasible.

    Most asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit have a delta-v in the range of 20 – 30 km/sec. That makes 1/2 mv^2 a very large number indeed.

  43. Nigel Depledge

    R2K (21) said:

    “We could try blowing it up, but that’s actually a bad idea: at best it creates a lot of debris that can still smack into us, some of which may still be big enough to do us serious harm.”

    Common misconception that gets spread around because most people, even scientists, have an irrational fear of nuclear weapons.

    Debris from a mass ejection redirection, using a large nuclear explosion, would almost certainly be ejected at meters per second or greater velocities. Almost all of these scraps would quickly spread out past the diameter of the Earth.

    It is funny that we are focusing on redirecting a fastball with drops of water, rather than the grenades we already have on hand. Nuclear weapons just are not PC anymore?

    There is indeed something to be said for detonating a very large explosive (to billion ton yield) deep within the rubble-pile asteroids or comets. Not only will it vaporize KMs of rock and ice directly, but it will also send the bulk of the object away from the detonation at meters per second or more. More than enough, given a few months warning time, to get the job done.

    Clearly you do not know as much about nuclear weapons as you would like to think.

    First, the largest warhead ever detonated had a yield of 62 megatons – a factor of 16 smaller than your “billion ton yield”. It was hoped that the device would yield 100 megatons, so clearly we do not have the knowhow to build a “billion ton yield” warhead.

    Second, on Earth, nukes are devastating because of the immense shock waves that they create as they superheat the air. In space, there is no air, so they won’t “push” stuff around anywhere near as much as you seem to think.

    Third, even if an unfeasibly large device could be built and transported to the rock, let’s see if we can work out what it is likely to do:

    A nuke creates, essentially, a lot of radiation. This is emitted all the way up the spectrum from IR to hard X-rays. On Earth, the X-rays cause the air to ionise and become opaque, which (because it therefore absorbs all the other radiation) causes it to heat up immensely and this leads to the phenomenally powerful shock wave. I imagine a nuke does much the same thing to rock, so you really would need to bury your nuke as deep as you can in the asteroid. Once it has vaporised a certain amount of rock, the rock vapour will create pressure in the asteroid and will cause part of it to shatter. The vaporised rock will then expand and act sorta like rocket exhaust, propelling the remaining bits in the opposite direction, and probably causing the asteroid to tumble also. Depending on exactly how the rock shatters or cracks, the chunks of rock (it is unlikely to be blasted into smithereens – most probably there will be a few large pieces and many smaller pieces) could end up being dispersed, or accelerated in such a way that their trajectory will miss Earth, or some of them could end up being accelerated towards Earth. It is messy and unpredictable.

    Subsequently, unless the velocity imparted to the pieces exceeds the escape velocity of the asteroid, the chunks are likely to move back together, due to their mutual gravitational attraction.

    Basically, detonating a nuke on or in an asteroid has no guaranteed outcome, apart from that the outcome is unpredictable. It depends too much on the properties of the individual rock.

  44. Nigel Depledge

    Steve (26) said:

    10. They retired the space shuttle without a replacement.

    Sadly, this is irrelevant, as Shuttle couldn’t get anywhere near an incoming impactor until it was about 10 seconds from hitting the atmosphere.

  45. Mike

    ESA has never done anything on this scale. They’ll almost certainly follow their typical pattern of make big plans, the cancel before they get anywhere.

  46. Anchor

    NASA Science News for August 16, 2011
    NASA is planning a daring new mission to visit a near-Earth asteroid. The spacecraft, named OSIRIS-REx, will orbit 1999 RQ36 for a year before gathering samples for return to Earth.

    FULL STORY at

    http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/16aug_osirisrex/

  47. flip

    Thanks Nigel and CB; confirmed that I was on the right track, but had some of my details wrong.

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