NASA review of space astrophysics missions extends all 9!

By Phil Plait | April 3, 2012 5:00 pm

Well, this is some very welcome and happy news: NASA’s 2012 Senior Review for Operating Missions has recommended to NASA that eight of the nine operating space-based astrophysics missions be extended in funding through fiscal year 2016, and NASA has complied!

Holy wow.

This really is great news! The missions extended through FY 2016 are Hubble, Chandra, Fermi, Planck, Suzaku, Swift, XMM-Newton, and Kepler. The exception is the infrared observatory Spitzer, which ran out of coolant a few years ago but is running in an extended "warm" phase, still able to do science. It will be extended through 2015, which is earlier than hoped, but it could be worse. The details are in the report issued by the Senior Review (PDF).

I’m very excited specifically about Swift — a gamma-ray burst mission that I worked on years ago, and which has been operating for more than 7 years so far. But I’m even more excited about Kepler. This is fantastic — it has found hundreds dozens of planets orbiting other stars, and has thousands more candidates listed that await confirmation. The reason this extension is so great is that the longer Kepler looks, the more likely it is to find lower mass planets in longer orbits. Big, massive planets orbiting close to their stars are easy to find, but ones more like Earth are much tougher. Kepler is right on the thin hairy edge of being able to detect them now, and this extension means a much higher chance it will succeed.

I strongly suspect — based on what we’ve already seen from Kepler coupled with the statistics and physics of exoplanets — that the signal from an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star in the habitable zone is already in the data we’ve received. It may be very hard to tease out, though, so having even more data, years worth of extra data, is more than a boon. It’s like being given the key to a treasure chest.

So overall I’m pretty darn pleased with this. Given the semi-apocalyptic nature of the last budget news we heard about NASA, this is like an oasis in the desert. Congratulations to all the people involved with these missions, and I’m looking forward to many more years of great science from our orbiting fleet of observatories!

Tip o’ the lens cap to Travis Metcalfe for alerting me to this news.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets, Kepler, Swift

Comments (37)

  1. SLC

    Ah gee, and none of these significant scientific missions involved human space flight. Here’s a link to an article about Steven Weinberg, well known critic of human space flight and, according to some in these parts, a man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, by extension from Bob Park.

    http://www.spacepolitics.com/2012/01/10/space-telescopes-supercolliders-and-the-perils-of-big-science/

    Money excerpt:

    Weinberg, who has long been a strident critic of human spaceflight, also brought that up in his talk. “All of the great discoveries that have made such great progress in cosmology in particular have been from unmanned observatories,” he said.</b? “The International Space Station was sold as a scientific laboratory, but nothing interesting has come from it.” He did say the ISS now has “one real science experiment” on the ISS, in the form of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, but that experiment largely runs autonomously from the activities of the station’s crew. He also blamed the ISS in part for the SSC’s demise, as the Clinton Administration elected to advocate for the station’s continuation in Congress, but not the SSC, when both were threatened with cancellation in 1993.

  2. I didn’t think that Astrophysics was threatened by the budget cuts? I thought it was just the planetary science division, which would mean that these missions funding could be taking away from the Mars Rover, Cassini, New Horizons, Messenger, etc. I really hope that is not the case, but I’m still very worried that current and future planetary missions might be at risk.

  3. The Kepler mission has so much to offer, especially with an extension. In addition to that, after the official mission is over and the extended one begins in November, all the data that comes in will be released to everyone immediately instead of having to wait for the Kepler team to hold the data for a period of time. In short, planets can be found by anyone once the extension begins! What a great way to wake up the average person to the wonders of space.

  4. Childermass

    Well not extending these missions would expose them to the charge of shear stupidity. Each of these missions cost hundreds of millions and years of effort to plan, build, and launch and far, far less to merely keep going. Funding these mission is simply some of the best bang for the buck.

    Keep them running until they can’t deliver the science. Be pound wise and penny foolish.

  5. Chris

    Well it’s a good thing they are keeping these missions going because it doesn’t seem like they have many new astrophysics missions in the pipeline at least according to
    http://science.nasa.gov/missions/

    Astro-H, GEMS, JWST (fingers crossed), NuSTAR, and LISA Pathfinder. Actually it seems these new missions are focusing more on x-rays rather than the other parts of the EM spectrum.

  6. The real issue is that spacecraft do not do science by themselves — you need scientists on the ground to interpret the data and make the discoveries. The extension of Kepler is great for mission operations and management, but the science team was basically cut out of the budget. Now the exoplanet crowd will compete on a level playing field (good) with the stellar astrophysics folks for a diminishing pool of resources (bad).

    Kepler will now produce enough data to keep us all busy for the rest of our careers, but our careers may be cut short for lack of funding. Looks like we may be returning to the days when astronomers need to seek the private sponsorship of kings and citizens — for Kepler, the non-profit Pale Blue Dot project has been running since before launch to support asteroseismology research, see http://whitedwarf.org/palebluedot

  7. Kuba the Pirate Navigator

    Phil, the claim
    “(Kepler) has found hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, and has thousands more candidates listed that await confirmation”
    is not true, or an exaggeration at the least.

    So far, the Kepler team has found exactly 61 planets, and the spacecraft data has been successfully used by other groups to track down 9 more. That’s 70 altogether (source: http://kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/discoveries/). Far cry from “hundreds” and very close to SuperWASP’s tally of 67 (source: exoplanet.eu).

    On the other hand, it is certainly true that Kepler has been able to identify thousands of candidates. But then again – so has SWASP (over 40,000 now, with about 2,500 high priority ones). The trouble, as always, is turning these candidates into confirmed discoveries – and that’s what both teams are struggling with.

    Aside from the minor complaint – I am really happy that all these missions got extended! Keep this attitude up NASA!

  8. Keith Arnaud

    Note that this is just an advisory review – the actual decisions will be taken by people at NASA HQ depending on how much there is available in the budget. It is great that the review didn’t kill any missions however that does not mean they are safe.

  9. ethanol

    Given the semi-apocalyptic nature of the last budget news we heard about NASA, this is like an oasis in the desert.

    Necessary though they may be, if these extensions don’t come with an additional contribution into NASA’s overall budget (which it doesn’t sound like they do), this is hardly like an oasis in the desert. More like a sip from a dwindling canteen in the desert.

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    Good news – my congratulations to all those involved in the (probably now?) extended missions. Looking forward to seeing many more years of wonders and discoveries from y’all! :-)

    Plus my sympathies to those involved in Spitzer mission, all good things must come to an end, I guess.How long then does Spitzer have left and what happens when it’s mission finally concludess – will it be de-orbited, boosted into a higher graveyard orbit or what? :-(

    Thanks for the images, science and memories you’ve delivered Spitzer – you were great. One of the great space telescopes / observatories indeed. :-)

    Good news when it comes to the US budget funding space exploration and science seems pretty rare so I’ll take what I can get (yeah, I know, like I have a choice!) but thanks for the notes of caution #4 Chris, # 5. Keith Arnaud & #6. ethanol. This is a good start and better than nothing but clearly still a way to go before we can be sure its good and sure things are headed in the right direction even for these obviously worthwhile specific mission extensions.

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^

    This is a good start and better than nothing but clearly still a way to go before we can be sure its good and sure things are headed in the right direction even for these obviously worthwhile specific mission extensions.

    PS. So it seems that like these space science missions in question, we need to keep watching this space(s). ;-)

    @1. SLC : Oh for pity’s sake, I know we all have our individual “hot button” issues & we all get that this is yours and that you hate the human spaceflight program and worship Steven Weinberg & Bob Park but, sheesh SLC dude, give it a rest. :roll:

    As I and others have pointed out to you before, it isn’t zero-sum and we can and should have both human and robotic space missions as we learn and gain and advance from both fields. Both human and robotic space exploration and science can and should be funded properly and these are complementary not antagonistic programs.

    You – & Weinberg & Park – are not helping and are off-topic, tiresome and wrong here. :-(
    (In My Humble Opinion Natch.)

  12. KC

    I agree w/ Tidy. It’s not either/or. We need both. If you went back in time and canceled the Apollo program, much of these unmanned missions would have never existed.

  13. This Nature news article by Eric Hand explains some of the thinking behind the report given by the Senior Review committee:

    http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/04/nasa-astrophysics-missions-spared-after-performance-review.html

    including comments from the chair. A contrast is made with the “bloodbath” of the previous Senior Review.

  14. VinceRN

    Glad all these are at least recommended for continued funding. Hope that recommendations mean something to the folks that write the checks though. It’s hard to be optimistic about that these days.

    Also, doesn’t seem just a little odd to say that NASA recommended this to itself?

  15. Grimbold

    It’s a pity they didn’t also decide to extend RXTE. That was still providing excellent science and was a nice complement to XMM-Newton.

  16. Nigel Depledge

    @ SLC (1) -
    Steven Weinberg was quite closely involved with the plans for the SSC, so if he blames the ISS for playing a part in the cancellation of the SSC, he’s hardly an unbiased observer.

    Also, he’s a particle physicist, not a space scientist, so is hardly best-placed to comment on the science coming out of the ISS. Having said that, of course, he is right insofar as the ISS does not give us any dramatic science in the same way that, for instance, Spitzer and Cassini have done.

    However, he seems to dismiss out of hand the inspirational value of manned space exploration (Shuttle was closer to a delivery truck than any serious attempt at exploration). Do you have a link to any attempt he has made to justify this dismissal?

  17. gss_000

    @1 SLC

    Great way to derail the conversation. Neil deGrasse Tyson supports both manned and unmanned missions, or is he a nobody? Both are needed and both generates results

    Look, manned missions are bringing awesome stuff to Earth now. I know you never will understand that fact, but both create good stuff. Check out the LAUNCH series of projects with Nike, State Department, and USAID or the new robotic assisted glove NASA and Good Year are developing based on the R2 and astronaut operations that has use on assembly lines here. Because of the need for larger payloads to be dropped onto Mars, they’re testing new systems on rocket sleds right now that will have benefits for unmanned systems as well. Not to mention the satellite refueling projects underway, salmonella vaccines, NanoRacks projects, YouTube Space Lab contest that generated millions of hits, etc, ad naseum.

    But please continue to cherry pick what projects and facts best fit your viewpoint. As a big manned spaceflight supporter, I’m also stoked these missions were extended.

    @14 Vince
    The review committees are independent bodies. This one was chaired by Joel Bregman, an astronomer at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

  18. Blargh

    If I understand this correctly, this is just “we’re going to try to keep these missions going with the budget we have” – it doesn’t actually mean they’re getting more money to do it.
    So… why the celebration?

  19. SLC

    Re Nigel Depledge @ #16

    I once took a course from Steven Weinberg. I knew Steven Weinberg. Mr. Depledge is no Steven Weinberg.

    Re gss_000 @ #17

    I saw the video that Dr. Plait posted of Dr. Tyson’s Congressional testimony. I didn’t see Dr. Tyson talking about the great scientific discoveries that came out of the human space program. With all due respect to Dr. Tyson, he ain’t no Steven Weinberg either.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    _Both_ Kepler and Planck! (Cosmology & astrobiology.) Wowza!

    @ SLC:

    Well, if you bring actual data in the form of measures of cost and efficiency instead of cherry picked opinion, it seems it is unfortunate indeed that so little manned exploration is done! If you can afford it, manned exploration is an order of magnitude more cost efficient for science. Where it can be used, of course, so no comparison with Weinberg’s overall description, but notable for having a slice of the science pie.

    With excuses for length, it is that important.

    1. The problem:
    “There is a widely held view in the astronomical community that unmanned robotic space vehicles are, and will always be, more efficient explorers of planetary surfaces than astronauts (e.g. Coates, 2001; Clements 2009; Rees 2011). Partly this is due to a common assumption that robotic exploration is cheaper than human exploration (although, as we shall see, this isn’t necessarily true if like is compared with like), and partly from the expectation that continued developments in technology will relentlessly increase the capability, and reduce the size and cost, of robotic missions to the point that human exploration will not be able to compete.”

    2. The measures:
    “Nevertheless, the space-suited ‘astronaut’ was found to be much more efficient in performing exploration tasks than the rover, and Snook et al. (2007; p. 438) concluded that: “humans could be 1-2 orders of magnitude more productive per unit time in exploration than future terrestrially controlled robots.” … Garvin (2004, see his Fig. 2) has compared the efficiencies of robotic, tele-robotic, and human exploration, from which it is clear that if humans are ‘1-2 orders of magnitude more efficient’ than tele-robots then they will be even more efficient when compared with robotic vehicles like the MERs or MSL, bringing the two estimates into better agreement.”

    3. The comparison:
    “Although it is generally taken for granted that human exploration is more expensive than robotic exploration, and this is certainly true if the aggregate costs are the only ones considered, the situation is not as clear cut as it is sometimes made out to be. For one thing, the ratio of costs between human and robotic missions, while large, may nevertheless be smaller than the corresponding ratio in scientific productivity. The Apollo missions are instructive in this respect. … It is interesting to compare this with the cost of a modern state-of-the-art robotic mission, like Mars Science Laboratory.”

    4. The conclusion [my bold]:

    The main point is that human missions like Apollo are between two and three orders of magnitude more efficient in performing exploration tasks than robotic missions, while being only one to two orders of magnitude more expensive. In addition, human missions can accomplish scientific objectives which are unlikely to be achieved robotically at all (deep drilling and properly representative sample collection and return are obvious examples, as well as the increased opportunities for serendipitous discoveries). Looked at this way, human space exploration doesn’t look so expensive after all!”

    The paper goes on to note that the most efficient use is not manned (or robotic) missions, but manned with robotic missions. This is what the japanese are planning AFAIK, but it seems US is set to miss out on a lot of a more affordable space science.

  21. Ross

    Re “earthlike” planets – I wish we could pick a different term. As far as Kepler would be able to tell, Venus is “earthlike”. “Earth-sized” or “terrestrial” might be better adjectives (and yes, I know “terrestrial” is really saying “earth-like” :-)

  22. Nigel Depledge

    SLC (19) said:

    I once took a course from Steven Weinberg. I knew Steven Weinberg. Mr. Depledge is no Steven Weinberg.

    Trivially, you are correct. He’s a particle physicist and I’m a biochemist.

    However, just because I don’t have a Nobel prize like Weinberg doesn’t mean I don’t have a point, and doesn’t mean that Weinberg can’t be wrong. It doesn’t mean he can’t be emotionally invested in a project with which he was involved. I have read Dreams of a Final Theory, you know, and in that he seemed pretty passionate about the SSC.

    If you have an issue with any argument or statement I have made, then make your point about the argument or statement, and let’s have at it. What you have said does not even attempt to address what I have said. If anything, your snide insinuation is an argument ad hominem, except that I hesitate to dignify it with the term “argument”.

  23. Nigel Depledge

    Comment deleted

  24. SLC

    Re Torbjörn Larsson @ #20

    Does Mr. Larsson have any conception as to what a manned space mission to, say, Europa, would cost or whether such a mission is even doable for humans? Or even a manned space mission to Mars? For instance, how would Mr. Larsson sustain astronauts during a 1.5 year journey to Mars, not to mention a 1.5 year return trip?

    Re Nigel Depledge @ #22

    As to a link to an extended article by Prof. Weinberg, I once linked in an earlier thread on this blog to an article he wrote for the local Austin, Tx. newspaper, which explained his position at some length. Also, Bob Park, has written numerous comments on his web site justifying he position on manned space flight.

    It is a mistake to conclude that Park and Weinberg are opposed to space exploration. They are enthusiastically in favor of it. Their views about manned space exploration are based on the dearth of scientific progress made so far in that program and their view that robotic missions can perform the same missions at far lower cost, contrary to the conclusions reached in the papers cited by Mr. Larsson.

  25. MaDeR

    Manned spaceflight IS more effective (compare moon rocks brought back with little help of
    astronauts with moon material from umanned missions). Unfortunately, manned missions require LARGE upfront payment. So yeah, I do not see any serious* manned spaceflight any time soon.

    * No, twiddling thumbs in LEO is not considered “serious” by me.

  26. Brian Too

    @8. Blargh,

    I’m having the same difficulty. If NASA is having serious budget issues and they are mandated to continue with all these missions, is there not a risk of spreading resources too thin to accomplish the missions?

    Or are there different pots of money involved, and this particular pot of money is big enough to handle the load?

  27. Nigel Depledge

    SLC (25) said:

    Re Torbjörn Larsson @ #20

    Does Mr. Larsson have any conception as to what a manned space mission to, say, Europa, would cost or whether such a mission is even doable for humans? Or even a manned space mission to Mars? For instance, how would Mr. Larsson sustain astronauts during a 1.5 year journey to Mars, not to mention a 1.5 year return trip?

    First off, would it hurt you so much to adopt the second-person form of address, rather than addressing other commenters in the third person?

    Second, you are ignoring the point that Torbjörn Larsson, OM, actually made. Don’t shift the goalposts by adressing only missions yet to happen. The point that Torbjörn made in #20 is that the evidence available so far indicates that manned exploration is more cost-effective than unmanned. If you disagree, say so and then explain why. In detail.

    Third, the challenges involved in a manned mission to Mars or Europa are immense. But they are engineering challenges. The problems are reasonably well understood. With the right tools and expertise we can overcome them.

    Re Nigel Depledge @ #22

    As to a link to an extended article by Prof. Weinberg, I once linked in an earlier thread on this blog to an article he wrote for the local Austin, Tx. newspaper, which explained his position at some length.

    This was not what I asked in my comment #22, it was what I asked in #16.

    And it is of no use in supporting your contention here. I’m not going to spend hours trawling through previous blog posts trying to find a comment in which you linked to Weinberg’s article. You are the one who implies that Weinberg’s opinion is relevant, so you come up with the goods to back it up.

    Now, do you have any intention of actually adressing what I said in #22?

    Also, Bob Park, has written numerous comments on his web site justifying he position on manned space flight.

    So what?

    Are you trying to make an argument from authority here? Bob Park is just as capable of being wrong as you or I or Weinberg.

    If you have a cogent and persuasive argument, then make it.

    The fact that you have not implies that you do not have one. Of course, it is easy to prove me wrong here. Simply make your argument.

    It is a mistake to conclude that Park and Weinberg are opposed to space exploration.

    Who said they were? Certainly not I.

    They are enthusiastically in favor of it.

    So what? That doesn’t make them right about it.

    Their views about manned space exploration are based on the dearth of scientific progress made so far in that program

    What dearth of scientific progress?

    Apollo achieved some extremely good science. The Shuttle programme was not one of space exploration. Microgravity science was an add-on to Shuttle, not its purpose. If you compare robotic explorers with Shuttle, then of course the robotic explorers will win, because Shuttle was not in the game of exploration.

    and their view that robotic missions can perform the same missions at far lower cost, contrary to the conclusions reached in the papers cited by Mr. Larsson.

    Yes, we gathered that Weinberg’s opinion is contrary to the conclusions in the paper cited in #20. This is kind-of obvious, since the paper cited in #20 actually refutes Weinberg’s opinion. Larsson’s cited paper uses something that you have not used – facts. And fact trumps opinion every single time.

    So, if you have any facts that support your argument, let’s hear them. Otherwise, stop treating Weinberg as some kind of infallible prophet and stop whining about manned space exploration.

  28. SLC

    Apollo achieved some extremely good science.

    Apollo occurred back in the 1960s when robotics technology was in its infancy. Today, the same science could be performed by unmanned missions at far lower cost.

    Here is a link to Prof. Weinberg’s article which I will link to again. Google is your friend.

    http://www.statesman.com/opinion/weinberg-ending-manned-space-flight-is-the-right-216386.html

  29. Nigel Depledge

    SLC (29) said:

    Apollo occurred back in the 1960s when robotics technology was in its infancy.

    Did you miss the part in #20 where Torbjörn Larsson, OM, presented a précis of a paper that compared Apollo to modern robotic missions?

    Perhaps you should go back and actually read the post, yeah?

    Or was the problem instead with your comprehension of Torbjörn’s point?

    Seriously, there is no excuse for completely ignoring a point someone has made that blows your contention out of the water.

    Torbjörn Larsson, OM (20) said:

    The Apollo missions are instructive in this respect. … It is interesting to compare this with the cost of a modern state-of-the-art robotic mission, like Mars Science Laboratory.”

    Your counter-argument fails before you even typed it.

    Back to SLC (29) :

    Today, the same science could be performed by unmanned missions at far lower cost.

    Probably not, actually. Do you know much about the science that Apollo did? It is very likely (as in, almost a certainty) that a robotic mission, using today’s technology, would have missed both the “Genesis” rock and the orange regolith that were serendipitously spotted by Apollo astronauts. Never mind the fact that even a modern rover such as MSL would not have been able to reach some of the sites from which Apollo astronauts returned samples.

  30. SLC

    Here’s an interview with Steven Weinberg on the subject of manned space exploration.

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1037/1

    Just to show that I don’t think that Prof. Weinberg is god, I don’t agree that Mars is the best chance for extra-terrestrial life in the solar system. IMHO, Europa is a better bet.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    SLC (29) said:

    Here is a link to Prof. Weinberg’s article which I will link to again.

    This is not what I asked for.

    I asked (#16) if you had a link to any writing where Weinberg justifies his out-of-hand dismissal of the inspirational value of manned space exploration.

    You have instead linked to an attack on the ISS (which, incidentally, I mostly agree with – but the ISS has nothing whatever to do with manned space exploration, except tangentially in the “learning to live in zero-gee” sense).

    Shuttle and the ISS are not Apollo. They have their own achievements, and I am sure that the people invovled in designing and performing experiments on the ISS would argue against his unsupported contention that “Nothing of scientific importance has come from the space station”, but Shuttle and the ISS were not in the business of exploration.

    Since the article you linked to is nothing but an opinion unsupported by facts, it amounts to nothing more than an appeal to authority. But Weinberg is an authority on particle physics, not space exploration, so his opinion is no more or less valid than anyone else’s.

    Google is your friend.

    Maybe so, but when you make a claim or a contention, then it is your task to support that claim or contention unless it is, for instance, a widely-accepted facet of mainstream science that will be in textbooks and so on. It is far from established that manned exploration of space gives less value than robotic exploration. If you want to claim that this is the case, it is up to you to support your argument.

    Can you?

  32. MaDeR

    @SLC
    “Today, the same science could be performed by unmanned missions at far lower cost.”
    False claim. I dare to say that even with modern tech we could not get robotically same quantity of rocks (way over 300 kg) in similar time and cost.

    And quality. Robotic missions had scrapped gravel from surface. Human missions had everything: small rocks, large rocks, dust, core samples… all carefully selected and handpicked from wide area (especially in later missions with rovers).

  33. ASFalcon13

    “It will be extended through 2015, which is earlier than hoped, but it could be worse.”

    “Plus my sympathies to those involved in Spitzer mission, all good things must come to an end, I guess.How long then does Spitzer have left and what happens when it’s mission finally concludess – will it be de-orbited, boosted into a higher graveyard orbit or what? :-(

    Thanks for the images, science and memories you’ve delivered Spitzer – you were great. One of the great space telescopes / observatories indeed. :-)

    …wait, what? Why the pity party for Spitzer?

    A bit of background here. Spitzer’s big solar panel array also acts as a large sun shield to keep the telescope assembly cool. We enforce roll and pitch limits to keep the telescope behind the sun shield, as well as to keep the solar arrays pointed at the sun to generate enough power to run the telescope and avoid eating into the batteries too much. Spitzer’s in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, and is slowly drifting away from Earth (we hit 1 AU the Saturday after Thanksgiving). As we move further away, our data rates will decrease due to the distance involved, and we have to pitch over farther to get our high-gain antenna – which is fixed at the “bottom” end of the observatory – pointed at Earth to communicate.

    It turns out that in Fall of 2013, the pitch angle we need to point the antenna at Earth will exceed those angle limits I mentioned earlier. When we were approved for extended mission after cryo depletion, this was thought to be a hard stop, an unavoidable end to the mission. We’ve been doing analysis over the last couple of years, and it turns out that it’s not the hard stop we thought it was…we can exceed the pitch angle limit long enough to communicate.

    …so yeah, this is a huge win for us! We’ve been extended past the point where nobody thought we’d be able to survive! Sure, we’ve got some challenges ahead, but we’re finding that they’re not insurmountable, they just require some changes in how we fly the telescope. Don’t start writing our eulogy yet, either…as the review says, we go up for review again in 2014.

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