A regular update on the most important news stories in astronomy and space from the best United States and North American news sources. Breaking news, latest discoveries plus the weird and wonderful. Updated regularly

Record-setting astronaut thrilled with bonus time in space

The world’s most experienced spacewoman said Thursday she’s thrilled to get an extra three months off the planet. The commander of the International Space Station, Peggy Whitson, told The Associated Press that five months into her mission, she’s not bored yet — “not even close.”

She misses cooking, though, and a diverse menu. She’s afraid there isn’t much chocolate left, to celebrate Easter this Sunday, but she’s hoping for more when two astronauts fly up next week, bringing the crew to five.

Whitson learned there was a chance her mission would last until September, instead of the originally planned June, the day before she rocketed away late last year. That’s because an empty seat will be available on a Russian Soyuz capsule for her return. She’ll now spend close to 10 months in space, keeping up with all the science experiments.

She said it was an easy decision to make, once NASA and the Russian Space Agency firmed up the plans earlier this month. She and her husband of almost 28 years, Clarence Sams, a biochemist at Johnson Space Center in Houston, decided on “a flexible plan of happiness,” either way.

The biggest challenge of staying up so long, she said, is more mental. While phone and video communication is great, there’s nothing like giving family and friends a hug, she told the AP.

Given the space station’s relatively limited food choices, she’d like nothing more than an Italian dinner with a great salad. She’s enjoyed munching on some Chinese cabbage she’s grown up there; she whipped up some tuna salad with horseradish sauce, and served it on the fresh cabbage leaves.

The 57-year-old biochemist — the oldest woman to fly in space — is on the verge of setting a U.S. record for most accumulated time in space.

On April 24, she’ll surpass astronaut Jeffrey Williams’ 534 days in space. She also has performed eight spacewalks, more than any other woman. A ninth may be in the offing.

During her last spacewalk two weeks ago, a piece of cloth shielding got loose and floated away before it could be installed. Whitson said they had tethered it to the wrong strap and it slid off the end. She said the training equipment on the ground was different, and didn’t pose such a problem.

This is her third space mission — and she’d welcome more. “I would definitely love to go to moon or Mars or some other destination,” she said. “Space station’s been phenomenal, but I’d like to take some of the next steps. I’m not sure if I’ll last that long, but I’ll give it my best.”


The Orion test flight spacecraft is now  at the Kennedy Space Center.

More than two years after it splashed down from orbit, NASA’s first Orion crew module to fly into space has landed on public display near where it was launched. The uncrewed Orion capsule is now on exhibit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida as the newest addition to NASA Now, a gallery devoted to telling “the evolving story of the future of space exploration.”

“This week, we welcomed another exciting addition to the NASA Now exhibit with the arrival of NASA’s Orion spacecraft crew capsule, EFT-1,” officials at the visitor complex announced on Facebook on Tuesday (April 11).

The Orion was launched on NASA’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on Dec. 5, 2014. Orbiting the planet twice, the spacecraft flew to a distance of 3,600 miles (5,800 km) above Earth — farther than any spacecraft designed to fly astronauts since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972. On Monday (April 10), it was moved from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center, where it had been built and later assessed post-flight, to the visitor complex.

The Lockheed Martin-built capsule was transported by truck atop a custom ground support transporter, which was used to roll the 16-foot-wide (5 m) spacecraft into the IMAX theater building where the NASA Now exhibit is located.

Now on display, guests to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex can see the EFT-1 Orion with its original back shell of black thermal tiles, similar to those used on the underbelly of the space shuttle orbiters, that protected the capsule during its re-entry into the atmosphere. A curtain surrounding the Orion’s base hides that its heat shield is absent, having been removed for post-flight analysis.

As described within the exhibit, the Orion was built “based upon all we’ve learned from NASA’s 50 years of human spaceflight experience [using] the most advanced technologies available today to safely send astronauts further into space than any other spacecraft in history.” Intended to fly aboard NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, the next Orion capsule is slated for a trip around the moon in late 2018, but may slip if the agency decides to add a crew to that flight.

California Students to Speak to NASA Astronauts on Space Station

March 30, 2017 – Students from Betsy Ross Elementary School in Anaheim, California, will speak with NASA astronauts living and working aboard the International Space Station at 11:40 a.m. EDT Monday, April 3.

NASA Awards Facilities Engineering Design, Inspection Contract

March 30, 2017 – NASA has awarded an architect and engineering services contract to Accura Rosser 8(a) JV of Atlanta to perform engineering design and inspection services at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

NASA to Preview ‘Grand Finale’ of Cassini Saturn Mission

March 30, 2017 – NASA will hold a news conference at 3 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 4, at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to preview the beginning of Cassini’s final mission segment, known as the Grand Finale, which begins in late April. The briefing will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

NASA Announces Upcoming International Space Station Crew Assignments

March 29, 2017 – Five NASA astronauts have been assigned to upcoming spaceflights. Joe Acaba, Ricky Arnold, Nick Hague, Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Shannon Walker all have begun training for missions launching later this year and throughout 2018.

NASA Launches App for Amazon Fire TV

March 29, 2017 – NASA has released its popular app for a new platform, Amazon Fire TV. This version joins previous releases of the app for iOS, Android and Apple TV devices

NASA Unveils New Searchable Video, Audio and Imagery Library

March 29, 2017 – NASA officially has launched a new resource to help the public search and download out-of-this-world images, videos and audio files by keyword and metadata searches from NASA.gov.

NASA Astronaut Fischer Available for Interviews Before Mission

March 28, 2017 – NASA astronaut Jack Fischer, who is making final preparations for an April 20 launch to the International Space Station, will be available for live satellite interviews from 8 to 9 a.m. EDT Tuesday, April 4.

Wang Appointed to Head NASA’s Office of Communications

March 28, 2017 – Jen Rae Wang has been selected by Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot as NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications. Wang joins NASA with more than a decade of experience at the highest levels of state and federal government in public, legislative, and media affairs both domestically and internationally, strategic communicati

NASA Selects Mission to Study Churning Chaos of Nearby Cosmos

March 25, 2017 – NASA has selected a science mission that will measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars.

NASA Awards Facilities Contract

March 24, 2017 – NASA has awarded the Facilities, Construction, Engineering and Technical Services III Contract (FaCETS III) contract to PTSI Managed Services, Inc., of Pasadena, California, for infrastructure maintenance at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.


New Method for 3-D Printing with Extraterrestrial Materials (Source: Space Daily)
When humans begin to colonize the moon and Mars, they will need to be able to make everything from small tools to large buildings using the limited surrounding resources. Northwestern University researchers have demonstrated the ability to 3D-print structures with simulants of Martian and lunar dust. This work uses an extension of their “3D-painting process.”

“For places like other planets and moons, where resources are limited, people would need to use what is available on that planet in order to live,” said Shah, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and of surgery in the Feinberg School of Medicine. “Our 3D paints really open up the ability to print different functional or structural objects to make habitats beyond Earth.” (4/13)

Salvaged North Korean Rocket Parts Show Key Components Came From China (Source: Toronto Star)
When North Korea launched its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into space last February, officials heralded the event as a birthday gift for dead leader Kim Jong Il. But the day also brought an unexpected prize for the country’s adversaries: priceless intelligence in the form of rocket parts that fell into the Yellow Sea.

Entire sections of booster rocket were snagged by South Korea’s navy and then scrutinized by international weapons experts for clues about the state of North Korea’s missile program. Along with motor parts and wiring, investigators discerned a pattern. Many key components were foreign-made, acquired from businesses based in China.

China’s complex relationship with North Korea was a key topic during last week’s U.S. visit by President Xi Jinping, as Trump administration officials urged Chinese counterparts to apply more pressure on Pyongyang to halt its work on nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems. Yet, despite China’s public efforts to rein in North Korea’s provocative behavior, Chinese companies continue to act as enablers. (4/13)

China Launches Another Experimental Commsat
(Source: NASASpaceFlight.com)
China launched an experimental communications satellite this morning. A Long March 3B rocket lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 7:02 a.m. Eastern carrying the Shijian-13 satellite. The spacecraft, also known as ChinaSat-16, will test Ka-band communications and other spacecraft technologies, including electric propulsion, from geostationary orbit. (4/12)

Russia Plans Two Satellite Launches From New Vostochny Spaceport (Source: Tass)
The head of Roscosmos says Russia plans to launch two satellites from the Vostochny Cosmodrome late this year. In an interview with a government newspaper, Igor Komarov said that the Canopus-V and Meteor-M satellites will launch on Soyuz-2 rockets from Vostochny in December. The launch site, built in Russia’s Far East, hosted its first and, to date, only launch nearly a year ago. Komarov also said that construction of a launch pad at Vostochny for the Angara-A5 rocket will begin there next year, with the first Angara launch scheduled from there in 2019. (4/12)

Air Force Orders Two Sats for Space Situational Awareness (Source: Spaceflight Now)
The U.S. Air Force has ordered two more “neighborhood watch” satellites to monitor geosynchronous orbit. Orbital ATK says it has received a contract to build another pair of Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites. The company built the first four GSSAP satellites, launched in pairs on Delta 4 missions in 2014 and 2016. A launch date for this latest pair has not been announced, but Air Force officials said the launch contract will be competed between SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. The Air Force declined to give the value of the latest GSSAP contract. (4/12)

Hubble Spots Potential Water Plumes on Europa Again (Source: The Verge)
There’s more evidence that plumes of water are erupting from underneath the crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. NASA announced the findings today at a press conference, at the same time that the agency also announced new clues that Saturn’s moon Enceladus may have the right conditions for life.

A possible plume was spotted in 2016 by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently in orbit around Earth. At the time, the telescope imaged what looked like a 62-mile-high water plume in ultraviolet light. A similar watery eruption on Europa has been observed before. In 2014, Hubble saw a potential plume that reached 30 miles high, and it was spewing from the same spot as the one in 2016. That means these plumes may be consistently erupting from one region. (4/13)

SpaceX Doesn’t Scare Asia’s Space Players (Source: CNBC)
The commercial space industry is dominated by Western heavyweights, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. But players in Asia say they aren’t worried about that competition. As corporate spending eclipses government activity throughout the global space sector, Japan’s PD Aerospace and China’s Kuang-Chi Science are among Asia’s homegrown private firms planning to offer spaceflight services to civilians.

Shuji Ogawa, CEO of PD Aerospace, acknowledges that it’s unlikely Asian companies can rival SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, but he said there’s more than enough demand to go around. “When we have reached their present stage, they will have advanced further,” he said. “Space tourism is a universal dream, not only for Japanese but for all people. It is important for us to view the Earth from space.” (4/13)

Fact Checking Bezos’ Stock Sale Claim for Blue Origin (Source: Quartz)
“My business model right now … for Blue Origin is I sell about $1 billion of Amazon stock a year and I use it to invest in Blue Origin,” Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and patron of Blue Origin, a promising new space enterprise, said last week.

But is that really the business model? Bezos, like any insider at a publicly traded company, needs to report major stock sales to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, a disclosure put in place after the Enron scandal at the beginning of this century. When Blue Origin declined to provide further details on Bezos’ claimed investment, Quartz pulled Bezos’ stock disclosures going back to 2004 to see how often he has really sold his stock. Answer: Not so often as implied. Click here. (4/13)

‘Mission Control’ Documentary Opens in Melbourne (Source: Florida Today)
You’ve heard of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but how about Steve Bales? As the NASA astronauts descended to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, the young mission controller made critical calls that ensured the historic landing attempt was not aborted.

“We’re go on that, Flight,” Bales called after a “1202” alarm rang out in the Eagle lunar module, befuddling the flight crew and almost everyone else manning Mission Control consoles in Houston. A guidance officer or “GUIDO,” Bales and a supporting team of engineers recognized the issue from a simulation and were confident that the 1202 alarm, and a 1201 that followed, would not jeopardize the mission.

Those and other triumphs are the focus of “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo,” a documentary opening Friday in 13 markets across the country, including a week-long run at the Oaks Stadium 10 in Melbourne. The movie will also be available on demand from cable providers and streaming devices. (4/13)

NASA Audit: SLS Rocket Unlikely to Launch in ’18 (Source: Florida Today)
NASA’s new deep space rocket and capsule probably won’t be ready for a planned first launch from the Cape Canaveral Spaceport next year, the agency’s internal auditors reported Thursday. Technical and budget challenges also will likely delay the Space Launch System rocket’s first launch of astronauts in an Orion capsule beyond 2021, according to NASA’s Inspector General.

Longer-term, the 77-page audit found NASA has a “sound framework” for sending astronauts near Mars in the 2030s, but many uncertainties underpin the ambitious and costly human exploration program.

“NASA faces a host of formidable challenges as it develops plans for human exploration of Mars,” the report concludes. “The technical challenges are unprecedented and the costs enormous with even austere budget estimates totaling more than $400 billion by the time a second visit to the Martian surface is completed in the 2040s.” (4/13)

Court: Detention of Woman During Moon Rock Sting ‘Degrading’ (Source: ABC)
For nearly two hours on May 19, 2011, Joann Davis stood in the parking lot of a California Denny’s restaurant in pants soaked in urine answering questions from a federal agent about a rice-sized piece of moon rock she wanted to sell to help pay for her son’s medical care. Davis, who was in her 70s, had contacted NASA about the rock and claimed it was a gift to her late husband from astronaut Neil Armstrong.

But lunar material gathered on the Apollo missions is considered government property, and her email prompted an investigation that brought six armed officers to the Denny’s that day in a sting operation to seize the rock. An indignant federal appeals court on Thursday criticized Davis’ detention by NASA agent Norman Conley in the Denny’s parking lot, calling it “unreasonably prolonged and unnecessarily degrading.”

Conley detained Davis even though he knew she was nearly 75 years old, had urinated in her pants during the sting, had reached out to NASA herself and was having financial problems, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. (4/13)

Camden Manager Touts Georgia Spaceport Virtues (Source: Golden Isles News)
Camden County Administrator Steve Howard believes a proposed spaceport in his county has the potential to positively impact the economy throughout the region. “This is a once in a generation opportunity,” he told an audience Wednesday at King and Prince Resort on St. Simons Island.

Howard explained the link the proposed site had with the aerospace industry in the 1960s when rocket engines were tested there. He said more than 700 employees worked at the site and it has potential for a spaceport to bring lots of high-tech jobs to the region. “We made history in the 60s. We have a chance to make history again on the coast,” he said. Click here. (4/13)

Group Launches ‘First Protest in Space’ Targeting Trump (Source: Motherboard)
“From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty,” Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell said regarding his experience in space. “You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'”

Well, the folks at the Autonomous Space Agency Network (that’s “NASA” backwards), a worldwide space community that promotes in DIY, local, and independent space missions, have made Mitchell’s irreverent words a reality. On Wednesday, ASAN posted what it calls “the first protest in space,” directed at President Trump. Behold this beautiful example of suborbital dissent (and eventually, descent).

The ASAN team printed out a giant tweet from their Twitter account, tagging Trump’s oft-used @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter handle, that reads “LOOK AT THAT, YOU SON OF A B#*^$” in the President’s preferred capitalized typeface. The sign hitched a ride on a weather balloon to an altitude of 90,000 feet, which is not considered space-proper (that’d be above the Kármán line, at 330,000 feet) but is in the near-space sphere. (4/13)

Problems Continue to Plague Russian Space Program (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)
Russia’s space program has encountered numerous problems in recent years that has put its reliability into question. Russia’s space program had been robust for decades until things started to decline during the past ten years. The Proton-M rocket, used as a satellite launch workhorse for Roscosmos, has failed nine times since 2007, including a spectacular July 2, 2013, crash just 32 seconds after liftoff where the booster went out of control and flew back toward the ground and exploded just a short distance from the launch pad.

According to Roscosmos, the cause of that particular failure was three Blocks of Damper Gyroscopes (BDG) that were installed incorrectly. The BDGs were responsible for providing navigational information to the Proton’s flight control system. The BDGs in question were installed rotated 180 degrees from their correct position. The bad data they relayed to the flight control system caused the rocket to veer out of control and crash.

In a press conference held after the investigation of the crash had concluded, the investigation commission chairman, Aleksandr Lopatin, stated that installation procedures for this assembly were not properly documented. Also, numerous inspections that were supposed to have taken place post installation apparently were not done as the logs were not signed. (4/13)

UAE Leaders Launch Program for Mars Missions (Source: Khaleej Times)
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince  of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, launched the national space program on Wednesday. The national space program includes the building of the first scientific city that imitates life on planet Mars.

The two leaders have approved the strategy of the national space programme, which is deemed to be the largest integrated scientific plan of its kind in the region. The national space programme includes the building of the first scientific city that imitates life on planet Mars. The city shall also include a museum of Mars and specialised laboratories. These are in addition to an experiment laboratory in zero gravity, Arab programe for space exploration, and the launch of the biggest forum of Mars scientists in the world. (4/13)

What Do the Stars Hold for the Trump Administration? Here’s How NASA’s Mission Could Change (Source: PBS)
How will NASA’s mission change under President Trump and a Republican Congress that helps decide where money should go? Some big changes could be in store for space exploration and the missions set into place now that could stretch well beyond the Trump era. Click here. (4/13)

France, Japan Team Up to Explore Mars’ Moons (Source: Air & Cosmos)
CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of France’s CNES space agency, and Naoki Okumura, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), have signed an agreement to prepare the MMX (Martian Moons Exploration) mission that is due to lift off in 2024. The agreement was signed in Tokyo on 10th April in the presence of Jean-Pierre Bibring of the IAS space astrophysics institute and Saku Tsuneta of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS).

MMX is a project to return samples from Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons with Deimos. The mission intends to probe the moons’ origins and thus gain new insights into how the solar system formed and evolved. The agreement covers phase A of the project, to which CNES will be contributing feasibility studies prior to a formal go-ahead decision, which Japan is expected to make by the end of this year for a mission launch in 2024. (4/12)

China Takes Wraps Off National Hypersonic Plan (Source: Aviation Week)
For many years, any coherent view of China’s highly ambitious hypersonic research program, just like its mist-shrouded coastline, has been all but impossible to see from the outside world. However, following the apparent decision to reveal more about its latest hypersonic research activities, the fog is lifting for the first time over at least some of China’s test and development efforts in high-speed flight.

What has come into view is a cohesive, nationwide hypersonic research and technology program that not only shows astonishing depth and breadth, but has also produced a bewildering number of major accomplishments in a relatively short period. The new picture emerged in early March at the 21st International Space Plane and Hypersonic Systems and Technology conference, where China’s top academic and government research units presented progress in unprecedented detail, on everything from hypersonic missions and vehicles to the latest on new test facilities and development of propulsion, power and control systems. (4/10)


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Latest NASA News Releases

For Rep. Rogers, fighting through a war in space starts with fixing acquisition

by Phillip Swarts — April 4, 2017

The Alabama Republican has vowed to make “major reform” of the national security space


Launchspace pitches debris sweeper that doubles as satellite tracker

by Debra Werner — April 3, 2017

Launchspace Technologies Corp. proposes sending platforms as large as football fields into low Earth orbit to sweep up space debris. The platforms also would be equipped with sensors to help U.S. government agencies detect and track orbiting satellites and debris.


Space-tracking ideas proliferating as fast as orbital debris

by Debra Werner — April 3, 2017

Commercial firms are developing models, simulations, algorithms and proposing new sensors to help the government improve its ability to tackle the problems of adversaries and orbital debris threatening U.S. satellites.


NOAA exploring greater use of alternative satellite weather data

by Jeff Foust — April 3, 2017

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is exploring ways to deal with a proposed cut in future weather satellite programs, including greater use of commercial and international data sources over the long term.


Zipline system to carry crews away from Starliner in an emergency

by Jeff Foust — April 3, 2017

Boeing and United Launch Alliance showed off an astronaut safety system during a media event the day before the 33rd Space Symposium.


Space Foundation has a new CEO

by Phillip Swarts — April 3, 2017

The Space Foundation has hired a new chief executive. The organization announced Thursday that Thomas E. “Tom” Zelibor, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, will start as its new CEO April 30.


Eutelsat satellite returned to factory as French Guiana unrest continues

by Caleb Henry — April 3, 2017

Protests roiling the South American home of Europe’s primary spaceport prompted Airbus Defence and Space to send Europe’s first high-power, all-electric satellite back to France until Arianespace resumes launches.


Blue Origin erects New Shepard outside the Broadmoor

by Brian Berger — April 3, 2017

Crews worked through the night installing Blue Origin’s hard-to-miss display outside the main exhibit hall at the 33rd Space Symposium here.


NASA plays down proposed Earth science cuts

by Jeff Foust — April 2, 2017

Despite a proposed cut of more than five percent in the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, NASA officials argued that its Earth science programs should not face major disruptions.


NASA and JAXA to develop replacement X-ray astronomy telescope

by Jeff Foust — April 1, 2017

NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA will start work this spring on an orbiting X-ray astronomy telescope to replace one lost shortly after launch last year.


SpaceX to launch Falcon Heavy with two “flight-proven” boosters this year

by Caleb Henry — March 31, 2017

SpaceX plans to conduct the debut launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket this summer using two boosters that have already flown on other missions, SpaceX Founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk said March 30.


Trump’s Air Force pick says increasing space-threat awareness a priority

by Phillip Swarts — March 31, 2017

“There is no question that space will be a contested domain in any future conflict,” Heather Wilson said.


Nearly every engine stockpiled for use on upper stages of Proton rockets has defects, investigation concludes

by Jeff Foust — March 31, 2017

The head of state rocket engine manufacturer Energomash, said that 71 engines require “complete overhauls” to correct defects found.


Europa lander work continues despite budget uncertainty

by Jeff Foust — March 31, 2017

The NASA team studying a lander mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa says their work is continuing even though the White House is requesting no funding for the mission in its latest budget.


SpaceX demonstrates rocket reusability with SES-10 launch and booster landing

by Caleb Henry — March 30, 2017

SpaceX has completed the first reusable orbital launch since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle, delivering the SES-10 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit with a rocket that first flew last April for NASA.


Thuraya CTO takes reins as longtime CEO departs for U.S. company

by Caleb Henry — March 30, 2017

The chief executive of mobile satellite services operator Thuraya has left the Dubai company for a job in the United States, prompting Thuraya to name Chief Technology Officer Ahmed Al Shamsi acting CEO.


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