Near collision with Musk's Starlink satellite

Robert Zwilling

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A new take on the mini satellite situation
Apparently because the mini satellites are so cheap to make, they have a higher than normal straight out of the box into space failure rate compared to the bigger more expensive, carefully built, and thoroughly tested satellites.
The odds aren't good at all.

The Star Link system is figuring 5 percent, which when compared to previous efforts is a big improvement. But judging by what has happened in the past it also looks very optimistic.

I think the records here are mostly single single satellite launches for 2006 to 2016 The failure rate started around 24 percent and increased to around 48 percent as time went on and more mini satellites were launched. Talk about going backwards. For these mini satellites, anything under 1,000 pounds was counted.
2017 saw on uptick in satellites put into space by the advent of cubesats which weigh around 22 pounds. 37 failures out of of 446 "satellites" or around 8.8 percent. This represented twice as many "satellites" launched as in previous years.

The satellite insurance industry was happy about 2017 but wary of what the future would bring. The failures that happened during the actual launch stays steady at around 6 percent and are not included in the percentages given. Those represent the time after the rocket has entered into positioning the satellite and what happened afterwards.

The Star Links weigh around 500 pounds and cost $250,000 each. A big difference between them and the shoe box size 20 pounders.

4 companies have announced plans to put into orbit 46,000 satellites. While Amazon still hasn't launched anything it already has plans to build 12 data centers around the world to communicate with the satellites.

The feeling is that as the number of Star Links are launched, and lost, the problem could magnify itself by defunct satellites hitting good satellites, which then hit other satellites. The satellites are orbiting in what is called mega constellations to maximize ground coverage, which means they are packed close together, compared to older satellites that operate by themselves. This sets up what is described as cascading failures. Star Links have an anti collision program but it's effectiveness is relatively unknown due to lack of data and the thinking that the anti collision program can still function in a defunct satellite, which is highly optimistic thinking. If the satellites lose their ability to be controlled but not the ability to make course corrections on their own this could also add to the problem.

Due to the high number of satellites being launched, possibly tens of thousands, the scenarios for low altitude space junk not doing what it is supposed to do is wide open for speculation. The low orbit, low budget space business is generating a lot of interest, similar to the use of drone's back on Earth, whose numbers keep multiplying like a plague. The addition of "drone" type mini satellites that would perform as tow trucks and garbage trucks should be showing up any day now. This would expand the space business to companies with no interest in their vehicles doing anything but clean up work, thus expanding the space business beyond "space" companies. While everyone is waiting for the heavyweight manned space launches that never seem to happen, the lightweight division is growing by leaps and bounds, far exceeding expectations.
 

StilLearning

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The addition of "drone" type mini satellites that would perform as tow trucks and garbage trucks should be showing up any day now. This would expand the space business to companies with no interest in their vehicles doing anything but clean up work, thus expanding the space business beyond "space" companies. While everyone is waiting for the heavyweight manned space launches that never seem to happen, the lightweight division is growing by leaps and bounds, far exceeding expectations.
The European Space Agency commissioned a junk disposal mission called Clearspace in December ( ESA commissions world’s first space debris removal) and the first in-space satellite servicing mission, MEV-1 is on its way to save an Intelsat satellite that is low on fuel, after an October launch ( First-of-Its-Kind Satellite Servicing Spacecraft Launches on Russian Rocket).

WRT the heavyweight Vs lightweight space, especially stateside: The lightweight sector has been growing for a while, as it's small enough to fly under the political radar, while the heavyweight stuff has been mired in political bickering since before I was born. But there is also a division between private projects aimed at developing near Earth space and improving access to it, and national cod-swinging that outwardly seeks to accomplish huge 'national pride' goals, but usually ends up being about creating and keeping jobs in certain politically important states, even if (as is usual) this attitude eventually leads to the cod-swinger program being cancelled as soon as a new administration gets elected..

Despite my cynicism however I'm holding out hope that the cod-swinging might yet allow some major developments to spring board, which is why I get hopefully about things like this: Axiom wins NASA approval to attach commercial habitat to space station – Spaceflight Now (and imho the International space station is on the better side of the cod swinging).
 
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RJM Corbet

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Unlike the traditional exploration motive, the commercialization of space has no principles except generating profit for shareholders.

It may be couched in futuristic language and promises of a better life, but it's all just the same ole' dirty short term greed. Imo

We can see it happening, but seem powerless to nip it in the bud. If Musk was sending tens of thousands of disposable mini robots into Antarctica, as essentially a vanity project with no real benefit to anyone, there'd be international outcry?
 
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Robert Zwilling

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That's a 5,000 pound tow truck towing a 10,000 pound satellite. Apparently they are still working out the plan of action as the tow vehicle has to stay with the disabled satellite for 5 years after it moves it and there is no assigned parking for them yet. After it is totally retired, then the tow can pick up another disabled satellite. Sounds like valet parking where the attendant stays with vehicle the whole time. Not quite what I envisioned, seems more like a mobile anchor.

Before the population numbers really explode, the total number of orbiting satellites is around 4,500. Only 1,500 of them are operational. That does not include all the stuff that has broken off of them, like solar panel debris and other devices located outside of the main body subject to stress.

The new biggest yet until tomorrow satellites weigh 10,000 to 15,000 pounds. 5,000 to 10,000 being the old limit. As the number of small satellites increases so does the tonnage of the big ones. Seems like there is going to be a lot of stuff towing a lot of stuff that died on the job before they could be retired. Unless they make a corral to hold all the dead satellites in one place. Sounds like dumping in the ocean when it was thought it was a bottomless pit. It could prove profitable to pick stuff off the top of the dead zone but the farther in you went the more armor you would likely need.

While it is physically safe to let the satellites fall back into Earth orbit because it all gets vaporized, the contents of those vapors are anything but safe. Each satellite that burns up is seeding the upper atmosphere with all kinds of elements. Since they are at the low end of the upper atmosphere the gravity is pulling the vaporized contents towards the Earth. It can then take its time to disperse and hang in the lower upper atmosphere forming a new layer with definite ionic properties. If the layer gets thick enough, it could minimally block the sunlight and lower the surface temperature. You want the layer to be transparent yet have some kind of blocking ability and the volume of material over the volume of space it would occupy would make that happen. People are already thinking about doing this to cool the planet by pumping who knows what up there.

The flip side is the material continues to fall to Earth and gets mixed into the rain, making a fierce antibiological spray. People use to think that after the Earth passed through a comet's tail, it wasn't a good idea to be outdoors. They can result in meteor showers so there is a grain of truth to the matter. With the satellites seeding the atmosphere it might be easier to get hit by metallic rain that it is to get hit by a 4 billion year old pebble.
 

Dan Jones

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Unlike the traditional exploration motive, the commercialization of space has no principles except generating profit for shareholders.

It may be couched in futuristic language and promises of a better life, but it's all just the same ole' dirty short term greed. Imo

We can see it happening, but seem powerless to nip it in the bud. If Musk was sending tens of thousands of disposable mini robots into Antarctica, as essentially a vanity project with no real benefit to anyone, there'd be international outcry?
Interestingly, I've just finished running a two day workshop in Cologne to establish "the rules of the road" for space. Or, at least, the European perspective on this, to complement the activity already being done by CONFERS. The European activity is incorporating views from the lawyers, insurers, developers, operators, etc to derive a consensus for how we do things in space.

Your point about Antarctica would presumably be covered by the Antarctica treaty, so I'm not sure it's a relevant analogy. This is a really complex subject, and it's going to take us a few years to get this right, but I think it's very unfair to say that the commercialisation of space is being done with no principles. The WEF has already floated the idea of a Space Sustainability Rating, and it's an idea that my project may run with, as it will help to establish common consensus about risks for insurers and lawyers in terms they can understand.

Funnily enough, the "futuristic language" you mention isn't really true. The problem is that the language isn't futuristic enough. Space law lags behind the evolution of the technology (in some respects) and for the new space markets to become governable it seems to make sense to develop international standards, overarching international agreements (that stitch together international treaties with new laws governing, for example, authorisation for space actions), and technology maturation (through IODs etc) to develop new "rules for the road."

It will take some time. My team will be meeting with CONFERS in Brussels in March to understand the US perspective on this and formulate a way in which we can work collaboartively. After all, space is a market in which the world needs to be able to collaborate as there are very few nations (or companies) who can do it all by themselves.

Anyway, we'll see how it goes.
 

RJM Corbet

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The European activity is incorporating views from the lawyers, insurers, developers, operators, etc to derive a consensus for how we do things in space.
Oh ... sure -- like how the rich guys carve it up amongst themselves?
Your point about Antarctica would presumably be covered by the Antarctica treaty, so I'm not sure it's a relevant analogy.
Yes it's relevant. The lack of a space treaty doesn't mean it's fine to pollute the space around our common world, while international apparatchiks stay in fancy international hotels and waffle, waffle for years.
This is a really complex subject, and it's going to take us a few years to get this right
You don't seem to have any sense of urgency, now do you?
but I think it's very unfair to say that the commercialisation of space is being done with no principles.
Unfair to who?
The WEF has already floated the idea of a Space Sustainability Rating, and it's an idea that my project may run with, as it will help to establish common consensus about risks for insurers and lawyers in terms they can understand.
Please write this in common English that people can understand.
Funnily enough, the "futuristic language" you mention isn't really true. The problem is that the language isn't futuristic enough.
So, like the advertising slogans could be better?
Space law lags behind the evolution of the technology (in some respects) and for the new space markets to become governable it seems to make sense to develop international standards, overarching international agreements (that stitch together international treaties with new laws governing, for example, authorisation for space actions), and technology maturation (through IODs etc) to develop new "rules for the road."
Which is just what I said, but not laws not written by industry to police itself.
It will take some time.
While you stall and play games to buy time to clutter space with cheap junk for your own profit?
My team will be meeting with CONFERS in Brussels in March to understand the US perspective on this and formulate a way in which we can work collaboratively.
Waffle, waffle ...
After all, space is a market in which the world needs to be able to collaborate as there are very few nations (or companies) who can do it all by themselves.
Thanks, I feel very reassured.
 
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Dan Jones

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Apologies, I probably used too much jargon in my post. I'll explain in a later post, as I have a flight to catch right now, but a quick clarification...

While you stall and play games to buy time to clutter space with cheap junk for your own profit?
I don't work for a private company, I work for the UK space agency, which is part of government. CONFERS is funded by US Government.
 

Elckerlyc

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The WEF has already floated the idea of a Space Sustainability Rating, and it's an idea that my project may run with, as it will help to establish common consensus about risks for insurers and lawyers in terms they can understand.
I would like some clarification too!
The problem I have with this sentence, is the apparently connection between establishing a Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) and 'risks for insurers and lawyers.' Lawyers I can understand inasmuch they are required to translate stuff into legalese and that some 'waffle, waffle' can't be avoided. But risk? And what is the SSR supposed to accomplish that involves insurers? Does it mean that establishing and maintaining a SSR is secondary to what can be insured?
All in all it strengthens my concerns that eventually nothing or too little will be done because it costs too much.(like adequate and timely measures to control climate-change) Especially so, if it's left to commercial companies to do the work.

Meanwhile we keep shooting satellites up as if 'the sky is the limit.' The proper understanding of the word 'limit' seems hard to get.
 

Robert Zwilling

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The proper understanding of the word 'limit' seems hard to get.
That's cause it's not in the vocabulary anymore. Common usage rules.

Industry has never been able to police itself. In space there will be no one looking at what is happening for the longest time so they will be on their non existent honor based no credible record behavior.

The insurance industry is there for at least 2 reasons. First, they insure the value of the satellites so they would probably prefer to see everything done by less expensive means which means cheaper losses for them to cover. Which means a giving a green light to filling up space with cheap disposable junk, which sounds all too familiar. We can make plastic that can withstand extreme cold and radiation. Worry about it tomorrow only works when the problems don't show up for years. We have sped everything up so when something is feeding crap into the fan, it blows right through on the same day. If we can see it, we can feel it.
 

StilLearning

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That's a 5,000 pound tow truck towing a 10,000 pound satellite. Apparently they are still working out the plan of action as the tow vehicle has to stay with the disabled satellite for 5 years after it moves it and there is no assigned parking for them yet. After it is totally retired, then the tow can pick up another disabled satellite. Sounds like valet parking where the attendant stays with vehicle the whole time. Not quite what I envisioned, seems more like a mobile anchor.

Before the population numbers really explode, the total number of orbiting satellites is around 4,500. Only 1,500 of them are operational. That does not include all the stuff that has broken off of them, like solar panel debris and other devices located outside of the main body subject to stress.

The new biggest yet until tomorrow satellites weigh 10,000 to 15,000 pounds. 5,000 to 10,000 being the old limit. As the number of small satellites increases so does the tonnage of the big ones. Seems like there is going to be a lot of stuff towing a lot of stuff that died on the job before they could be retired. Unless they make a corral to hold all the dead satellites in one place. Sounds like dumping in the ocean when it was thought it was a bottomless pit. It could prove profitable to pick stuff off the top of the dead zone but the farther in you went the more armor you would likely need.

While it is physically safe to let the satellites fall back into Earth orbit because it all gets vaporized, the contents of those vapors are anything but safe. Each satellite that burns up is seeding the upper atmosphere with all kinds of elements. Since they are at the low end of the upper atmosphere the gravity is pulling the vaporized contents towards the Earth. It can then take its time to disperse and hang in the lower upper atmosphere forming a new layer with definite ionic properties. If the layer gets thick enough, it could minimally block the sunlight and lower the surface temperature. You want the layer to be transparent yet have some kind of blocking ability and the volume of material over the volume of space it would occupy would make that happen. People are already thinking about doing this to cool the planet by pumping who knows what up there.

The flip side is the material continues to fall to Earth and gets mixed into the rain, making a fierce antibiological spray. People use to think that after the Earth passed through a comet's tail, it wasn't a good idea to be outdoors. They can result in meteor showers so there is a grain of truth to the matter. With the satellites seeding the atmosphere it might be easier to get hit by metallic rain that it is to get hit by a 4 billion year old pebble.
Bolding mine - I think that's the key if, rate of accumulation.

I think the valet parking analogy is apt - the point I wish to make is that, first, there is progress being made on the technological side of this and, second, that it is still very early doors with very limited capabilities.

With respect to the risk of climactic alteration via satellite debris - I have no numbers or analysis on this, but it's a very interesting question. My wild guess would be that even though the new mega constellations will see tens of thousands of satellites (FWIW I believe the number of objects larger than 10cm currently in orbit, including debris is north of 8000) the tonnage of material vaporising per annum in our atmosphere will be too low to have any significant effect for a very long time, even if the material has a long lingering time, but if you know of a study done on this I'd be open to correction. As you mention geo engineering projects have looked at how much you'd need, so I will look for those studies, compare to the rate of space debris re-entry (which I guess should be known) and we can do a simple back-of-an-envelope comparison.

Edit: As for policing, in the end physics will police industry. The question is will they or anyone else realise they need to do some policing of their own first, because physics will police by cutting off access to LEO for decades to centuries.
 

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I think I will also point out that the big projects - like a lunar base, a Mars return - are not motivated by exploration. They are motivated and killed by national pride, domestic politics, and international politics. The endless cycle of failed grand designs is clearly so, and a bit sad. But even the success of Apollo is a classic example: By 1975, thanks to political pressure at key conferences, the scientific community declared that a handful of landings and limited explorations by (largely) non geologists had solved the mystery of the Moon's origin, demonstrated it was utterly without water, geologically dead, and the Moon was understood - all because, politically, Apollo had to be an indisputable demonstration of superiority in every field. And because the administration of the time had decided to spend its money elsewhere - partly on the space shuttle, ironically, which was promised o open up LEO but never did.

Today, thanks to robotic missions the majority of the public have never heard of, we know Apollo missed, oh, several hundred million tons of water an organic ice at the lunar poles, the giant impact hypothesis has been reasonably questioned, the Moon sustained volcanism for billions of years longer than thought, and very likely had (at least intermittently) a significant atmosphere (perhaps even peaking at as dense as Mars') for billions of years.

What is a popular idea and national pride stirring. Vs what actually works for finding things out.

The commercial paradigm is utterly imperfect and carries great risk of abuse. But far more people are open-eyed to that. This conversation is itself is some evidence of that. The old 'exploration motive' was always about geopolitics, demonstrating the ability to wage war with rocket technology, and power. And science was to consider itself sooo very privileged and honoured to be allowed to tag along and offer a thin covering for the real motives. The British did the same thing with Antarctic exploration, and African exploration. It is not new or hard to spot. The commercial paradigm is not wonderful. A government space agency for regulation and development will still be a good idea. But it is just a bit better.
 
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Robert Zwilling

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And so it goes... 60 more Star Links were launched today.

The sky is not infinite and the gravity is pulling the debris down making sure none of it floats away. We live in a gravity fed mud hole. Everything that gets too close gets pulled in. The rings on Saturn are deceptively thin but something makes them take shape out of formless dust.

I think if Physics is the cop, I would expect that our lives have no value in the equation, except to be the icing on Schrodinger's cake.
 

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And so it goes... 60 more Star Links were launched today.

The sky is not infinite...

... think if Physics is the cop, I would expect that our lives have no value in the equation, except to be the icing on Schrodinger's cake.
Precisely so IMHO. But physics isn't hiding that - physicists and engineers can tell people today that that is how things are. The question is who listens? What scares me is human beings who act, and talk, as though the laws of physics will make an exception for them - as if their national identity is more than a merely human conceit, or their personal ambitions more than the goals of an tiny and flawed creature.

Such people occur in politics and industry, are often in many ways admirable, and act with great and beguiling confidence that folk want to follow. They also lead, sooner or later, to disaster.

But in commerce people are much more ready to see them for what they are and demand they be controlled and regulated. My two cents only: That is an advantage. For some reason, when in politics, they seem far more able to garner uncritical and passionate followers. WRT to the topic of space debris... what little forgiveness life on Earth might offer to the mistakes that a big ego surrounded by uncritical and passionate followers leads to is definitely gone at 14 km/sec relative velocity. Again, the commercial paradigm ain't great, it's just a bit better than the national one.
 
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RJM Corbet

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Apologies, I probably used too much jargon in my post. I'll explain in a later post, as I have a flight to catch right now, but a quick clarification...



I don't work for a private company, I work for the UK space agency, which is part of government. CONFERS is funded by US Government.
I apologise if I have been unfair. It's obviously not an easy thing to set up enforceable parameters and so it is important that people like yourself are trying to do something, imo
 
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StilLearning

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OK, this is very crude, but: WRT the idea of triggering global cooling by the amount of Debris getting re-enter Ed and injected I to the upper atmosphere, which was mentioned earlier: The 1991 mount pinatubo eruption caused a worldwide drop in temperatures of about 0.5 degrees celcius, which lasted for 2-3 years. As per this source( Error - Cookies Turned Off) it had to inject 20,000,000 tons of SO2 into the stratosphere to do this. OK... vapour from re-entering satellites may not be directly comparable, but even if you dumped the whole tonnage of several mega constellations into tje atmosphere on one day the numbers are still orders of magnitude apart. Pending a better analysis I'd say that the risk of losing the ability to make use of LEO is the risk that needs to be managed here.
 

StilLearning

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Apologies for the spelling mistakes in my previous post by the way - I was writing while on the move and didn't have any time to read it through. Here's a second paper giving similar numbers, as the link to the first one seems to be acting up (for me anyway), and this is also a whole free to access paper: The atmospheric impact of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption
 

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I should apologise for what may seem like excessive negativity about government funded manned space exploration. I'd love to be wrong. However I have read some of the White house's draft NASA authorisation bill and, well, it doesn't look like I am.

OK, I'm now well off topic, but this podcast and blog (which is fairly well thought of among folk who actually work in the space industry) sums up how it looks to me, better than my own words: House Draft NASA Authorization Bill is the Greatest Hits of Terrible, Dead-End Space Policy
 

Robert Zwilling

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20,000,000 tons of SO2 into the stratosphere
I think it is going to turn out that every bit counts.

Pinutubo sulfates only got 37 miles up into the atmosphere. The satellite fallout and meteors and comets as well, start at the top and work their way down through the layers. The satellite crap is probably opaque so it absorbs heat as it blocks sunlight. The atmosphere warms up but the land doesn't. The lower atmosphere has been warming up while the much higher regions are cooling off. Sometimes the ratio is 10 to 1 making it easy to measure by reflecting radio waves off of it.

Global dimming is the blockage of solar radiation by particles in the atmosphere. It was more pronounced in the 1990s but dropped off as the entire world cut back on using substances that contributed to it. It still happens from volcanoes and fires and dust from arid lands. The different types of particles contribute to warming or cooling of both the upper and lower atmospheres. The effect of global dimming is always a variable, but has been decreasing overall. It was making the planet cooler in the 90s, masking the overall warming.

The Pinutubo sulfates only stayed in the atmosphere 2 to 3 years. The stuff from the satellites is lasting longer as it has farther to go, if it ever makes it to the ground. Being in the atmosphere longer it takes less of it to effect the atmosphere. Every bit counts because it ends up between the Earth and the sun and either adds or subtracts to the overall cooling or warming. The sulfates from the volcanoes are natural in that the atmosphere has seen it before and has ways of handling it that have evolved over billions of years. The crap from the satellites is a new item on the menu, and while it might trigger the same mechanisms that contributions from meteors and comets are handled by, the range of materials is broader than the average meteor or comet. While you might think that increasing the number of particulates in the atmosphere would increase rainfall, some of the materials cause smaller drops to form causing lighter rainfalls to happen.
 

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While I don't disagree with any particular point, what I'm getting at is that stuff from the satellites is entering at an average rate of much less than a ton per day. We receive an average of 100 tons of space dust a day, or around 40,000 tons a year ( How much dust falls on Earth each year? Does it affect our planet’s g ). Mount Pinatubo injected that 20,000,000 ton chunk of SO2 into the stratosphere in a matter of hours, and this resulted in about 0.5 degrees of global cooling. Each of the starlink satellites masses 230kg, spaceX has permission to field up to (IIRC) 34,000 of them, and plans to put up 12,000.

So there would need to be roughly 4 starlink satellites re-entering per day to raise the amount of infall by 1% over the natural background. I won't say it can't become a problem, because I'm pretty sure the guys looking at the herds of cattle on the American plains thought eating too many of them could never become a problem, but it'll take a lot of mega constellations to get there... ...and from what I've heard the market will support maybe three, and perhaps two military versions. I'm not going to panic yet.
 
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