A Solution for Medical Needs and Cramped Quarters in Space

Imagine you’re an astronaut exploring the surface of Mars, when suddenly you fall ill or injure yourself. As your team struggles to get you safely back to base, you become seriously dehydrated. With their trusty — and ingenious — kit, the medical officer hooks into the drinking water supply, using it to create a saline solution that they can inject directly into your blood stream for quick and safe rehydration.

That’s the idea behind the Intravenous Fluid Generation for Exploration Missions, or IVGEN, investigation that was conducted on the space station over five days in the spring of 2010. Since standard IV fluid bags used in hospitals would be too costly to send and hard to keep from spoiling on long-duration space missions, the ability to make fresh saline right from the drinking water supply could save the day in emergency scenarios.

Using the station’s current recycled drinking water, the IVGEN investigation demonstrated that it is possible to produce medical-grade saline in space. Now, the focus has turned to the longevity of the IVGEN hardware and the shelf life of the solution produced.

“Basically IVGEN was a project to verify that, somehow, we could take potable or drinking water, purify it, and mix it to make a normal, medical-grade saline solution that could be injected into astronauts if the need arose,” said John McQuillen, IVGEN principal investigator at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

The IVGEN experiment relied on U.S. Pharmacopeia, or USP, guidelines for producing purified water and medical-grade saline. USP is the authoritative source for medicine and healthcare product standards.

Water from the station’s Water Processor Assembly was fed through IVGEN hardware, where a series of filters removed air, bacterial contaminates, particulates, and heavy metals upstream of the heart of the system. The water then continued on through an internal deionizing resin, similar to that used in home water purifiers, removing the bulk of the minerals and organics. The experiment produced six 1.5 liter bags, or about 2.5 gallons, of purified water.

Two of the six bags were used to produce medical-grade saline. To do that, the purified water was added to a bag containing a premeasured amount of salt and a magnetic stir bar for mixing. The resulting solution then was transferred to the final collection bag through a sterilizing filter, which removed any additional remaining air and bacteria.

Once back on Earth, the two bags of saline were shipped to a Food and Drug Administration-certified lab to test whether the contents complied with USP standards. In the meantime, the hardware was placed on the shelf to undergo lifetime testing and ground studies until needed for a future mission.

“We are now wrapping up testing of the post-flight hardware. This testing was performed to see what we can learn from the current state hardware, as opposed to when it was initially launched,” said Terri McKay, IVGEN project scientist at Glenn. “We are also testing the filters to make sure they can satisfy missions of multiple year durations. The pharmaceutical product shelf life needs to be documented, as well.”


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Early Detection of Immune Changes Prevents Painful Shingles in Astronauts and Earth-Bound Patients4

The physiological, emotional and psychological stress associated with spaceflight can result in decreased immunity that reactivates the virus that causes shingles, a disease punctuated by painful skin lesions. NASA has developed a technology that can detect immune changes early enough to begin treatment before painful lesions appear in astronauts and people here on Earth. This early detection and treatment will reduce the duration of the disease and the incidence of long-term consequences.

Spaceflight alters some elements of the human immune system: innate immunity, an early line of defense against infectious agents, and specific components of cellular immunity are decreased in astronauts. Astronauts do not experience increased incidence or severity of infectious disease during short-duration spaceflight, but NASA scientists are concerned about how the immune system will function over the long stays in space that may be required for exploration missions.

Selecting one or more biomarkers or indicators of immunity in healthy individuals is difficult, but the herpes viruses have become valuable tools in early detection of changes in the immune system, based largely on the astronaut studies. Eight herpes viruses may reside in the human body, and virtually all of us are infected by one or more of these viruses. Herpes viruses cause diseases including common “fever blisters” (herpes simplex virus or HSV), infectious mononucleosis (Epstein-Barr virus or EBV) and chicken pox and shingles (varicella zoster virus or VZV). In immune-suppressed individuals, herpes viruses may cause several types of cancer, such as carcinoma, lymphoproliferative disease and others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one million cases of shingles occur yearly in the U.S., and 100,000 to 200,000 of these cases develop into a particularly painful and sometimes debilitating condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia, which can last for months or years. The other seven herpes viruses also exist in an inactive state in different body tissues much like VZV, and similarly they may also reactivate and cause disease during periods of decreased immunity.

The most common cause of decreasing immunity is age, but chronic stress also results in decreased immunity and increases risk of the secondary disease, such as VZV-driven shingles. Chemotherapy, organ transplants and infectious diseases, such as human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, also result in decreased immunity. Thus, viral reactivation has been identified as an important indicator of clinically relevant immune changes. Studies of immune-compromised individuals indicate that these patients shed EBV in saliva at rates 90-fold higher than found in healthy individuals.

The herpes viruses are already present in astronauts, as they are in at least 95 percent of the general adult population worldwide. So measuring the appearance of herpes viruses in astronaut body fluids serves as a much-needed immune biomarker. It is widely believed that various stressors associated with spaceflight are responsible for the observed decreased immunity. Researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center found that four human herpes viruses reactivate and appear in body fluids in response to spaceflight. Due to the reduced cellular immunity, the viruses are allowed to emerge from their latent state into active infectious agents. The multiplying viruses are released into saliva, urine or blood and can be detected and quantified by a polymerase chain reaction or PCR assay for each specific virus. The PCR assay detects viral DNA and is very sensitive and highly specific, allowing the user to selectively replicate viral DNA sequences. The finding of VZV in saliva of astronauts was the first report of VZV being reactivated and shed in asymptomatic individuals. Subsequently, the VZV shed in astronaut saliva was found to be intact and infectious, posing a risk of disease in uninfected individuals.


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Catch a Glimpse of Halley’s Comet Debris — Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

Each spring as Earth passes through the debris trail from Halley’s Comet (1P/Halley), the cosmic bits burn up in our atmosphere and result in the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower. This year the peak will occur on the night of May 5 and into the morning of May 6, with meteor rates of about 40-60 meteors per hour under ideal conditions.

A full moon occurs on May 6, just a day after the Eta Aquarids’s peak on the 5th. The light of the bright full moon will wash out the fainter Eta Aquarid meteors, but all is not lost! The Etas have a decent rate — 60 per hour — and contain quite a few fireballs.

NASA fireball cameras have already detected several bright Eta Aquarid meteors this year, so the odds are pretty good that a bit of Halley’s Comet can be seen over the next few days. Ideal viewing conditions are clear skies away from city lights, especially just before dawn.

Eta Aquarids Viewing Tips

Find an area well away from city or street lights. Lie flat on your back on a blanket, lawn chair or sleeping bag and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt and you will begin to see meteors. Be patient — the show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.


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Cancer Treatment Delivery

Humanity is on the constant search for improvements in cancer treatments, and the International Space Station has provided a microgravity platform that has enabled advancements in the cancer treatment process.

The oncology community has a recent history of using different microencapsulation techniques as an approach to cancer treatment. Microencapsulation is a single step process that forms tiny liquid-filled, biodegradable micro-balloons containing various drug solutions that can provide better drug delivery and new medical treatments for solid tumors and resistant infections. In other words, by using microcapsules containing antitumor treatments and visualization markers, the treatment can be directed right to the tumor, which has several benefits over systemic treatment such as chemotherapy. Testing in mouse models has shown that these unique microcapsules can be injected into human prostate tumors to actually inhibit tumor growth or can be injected following cryo-surgery (freezing) to improve the destruction of the tumors much better than freezing or local chemotherapy alone. The microcapsules also contain a contrast agent that enables C-T, X-ray or ultrasound imaging to monitor the distribution within the tissues to ensure that the entire tumor is treated when the microcapsules release their drug contents.

Morrison, Ph.D. (retired), at NASA Johnson Space Center, was performed on the station in 2002 and included innovative encapsulation of several different anti-cancer drugs, magnetic triggering particles, and encapsulation of genetically engineered DNA. The experiment system improved on existing microencapsulation technology by using microgravity to modify the fluid mechanics, interfacial behavior, and biological processing methods as compared to the way the microcapsules would be formed in gravity.

In effect, the MEPS-II system on the station combined two immiscible liquids in such a way that surface tension forces (rather than fluid shear) dominated at the interface of the fluids. The significant performance of the space-produced microcapsules as a cancer treatment delivery system motivated the development of the Pulse Flow Microencapsulation System, or PFMS, which is an Earth-based system that can replicate the quality of the microcapsules created in space.


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Rubber Chicken (Camilla) Flies into Solar Radiation Storm

Last month, when the sun unleashed the most intense radiation storm since 2003, peppering satellites with charged particles and igniting strong auroras around both poles, a group of high school students in Bishop, Calif., knew just what to do.

They launched a rubber chicken.

The students inflated a helium balloon and used it to send the fowl, named “Camilla,” to an altitude of 120,000 feet where she was exposed to high-energy solar protons at point-blank range.

“We equipped Camilla with sensors to measure the radiation,” says Sam Johnson, 16, of Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky student group1. “At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere.”

Launching a rubber chicken into a solar storm might sound strange, but the students had good reason: They’re doing an astrobiology project.

“Later this year, we plan to launch a species of microbes to find out if they can live at the edge of space,” explains team member Rachel Molina, 17. “This was a reconnaissance flight.”

Many space enthusiasts are already familiar with Camilla. She’s the mascot of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. With help from her keeper, Romeo Durscher of Stanford University, Camilla corresponds with more than 20,000 followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, filling them in on the latest results from NASA’s heliophysics missions.

“Camilla’s trip to the stratosphere2 gave us a chance to talk to thousands of people about the radiation storm,” says Durscher.

On the outside of her space suit (knitted by Cynthia Coer Butcher from Blue Springs, Mo.), Camilla wore a pair of radiation badges, the same kind medical technicians and nuclear workers wear to assess their dosages.

Camilla actually flew twice–once on March 3 before the radiation storm and again on March 10 while the storm was in full swing. This would give the students a basis for comparison.

On March 3, during the calm before the storm, the Earth to Sky team assisted by a local class of fifth graders attached Camilla to the payload, inflated the balloon, and released the “stack” (balloon, parachute and payload) into a cloudless blue sky just before local noon.

“It was a beautiful lift-off,” says Amelia Koske-Phillips, 15, the team’s payload manager and “launch boss.”

During the two-and-a-half-hour flight, Camilla spent approximately 90 minutes in the stratosphere where temperatures (-40 to -76 F) and air pressures (1 percent sea level) are akin to those on the planet Mars. The balloon popped, as planned, at an altitude of about 25 miles and Camilla parachuted safely back to Earth. The entire payload was recovered intact from a landing site in the Inyo Mountains.


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Students Photograph Earth From Space via EarthKAM Program

Imagine this: you are a young and inquisitive middle-school student, investigating and examining the vastness of Earth’s majestic mountain ranges, coastlines, oceans and other geographic imprints. Now, envision the thrill of doing so from the vantage point of an astronaut! Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students, or EarthKAM, allows students to do just that — view and capture images of their world from an astronaut’s perspective!

EarthKAM is a NASA-funded educational outreach program run in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego. The goal is to provide an enriched and enhanced educational experience to motivate students toward math and science studies. The camera allows students worldwide to examine and photograph Earth from the unique vantage point of the International Space Station.

EarthKAM uses a Nikon D2Xs digital camera mounted in the Window Observational Research Facility, or WORF, which uses the science window located in the U.S. Destiny Laboratory. This window’s high quality optics capabilities allow the camera to take high-resolution photographs of the Earth using commands sent from the students via the online program. Students and educators then use the photos as supplements to standard course materials, offering them an opportunity to participate in space missions and various investigative projects. Creators of EarthKAM hope that combining the excitement of this space station experience with middle-school education will inspire a new set of explorers, scientists and engineers.

Students use EarthKAM to learn about spacecraft orbits and Earth photography through the active use of Web-based tools and resources. With the help of their teachers, they identify a target location and then must track the orbit of the station, reference maps and atlases and check the weather prior to making their image request. These requests funnel to another set of students, this time at the University of California at San Diego. These college students run the EarthKAM Mission Operations Center, or MOC, for the project. Here they compile the requests into a camera control file and, with the help of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, then uplink the requests to a computer aboard the space station.

Requests ultimately transmit to the digital camera, which then takes the desired images and transfers them back to the station computer for downlink to EarthKAM computers on the ground. This entire relay process usually completes within a few hours, and the photos are available online for both the participating schools and the public to enjoy.

As an added bonus, EarthKAM does not require much attention aboard the space station, which allows the astronauts to pay more attention to the other more involved payloads. According to Annie Powers, a NASA flight controller in the Cargo Integration and Operations Branch at the Johnson Space Center, “The crew’s main role is the set up: they position the camera on a bracket over the window, adjust the camera settings, connect the USB cable to the laptop and start the EarthKAM software. But, after set-up, all the crew has to do is periodically change the camera battery, and we usually have them swap to a different lens mid-week. It

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Look Out for Those Rocks!

The words “hazard field” certainly never were associated with the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. To the contrary, the goal was to keep the runway area free of any hazards that might endanger the shuttle and crew during landing. But that is about to change when, in the not-too-distant future, the facility will offer a prototype space vehicle the kind of landing hazard field necessary for realistic testing.

An area near the runway will be turned into a field of hazards as part of the next phase of tests for the Project Morpheus lander, which integrates technologies that someday could be used to build future spacecraft destined for asteroids, Mars or the moon. The lander has been undergoing testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for almost a year in preparation for its first free flight. During that flight testing, it will rise almost 100 feet into the air, fly 100 feet laterally, and then land safely.

Once the lander has successfully completed a planned series of these free flight tests, the team will move on to its next challenge — flying a kilometer-long simulated surface approach while avoiding hazards in a landing field. Morpheus integrates an autonomous landing and hazard avoidance technology (ALHAT) payload that will allow it to navigate to clear landing sites amidst rocks, craters and other hazards during its descent, and land safely.

But to put that capability to the test, Morpheus needs rocks, craters and hazards to avoid — and that’s where the Kennedy landing facility comes in. After evaluating several potential testing sites, project managers at Johnson determined that, with the addition of some hazards, Kennedy’s former shuttle landing facility would be the best choice.

“Kennedy Space Center offers the perfect combination of capabilities,” said Dr. Jon Olansen, Morpheus project manager at Johnson, “range and airspace availability, hangar facilities, propellant handling capabilities — and an open and often available runway near which we can build a hazard field completes the package.”

“It will be difficult to turn the relatively flat, grassy area north of the runway into a crater-filled planetary scape for Morpheus to negotiate and land in, but that’s the kind of challenge that the Kennedy team thrives on,” said Greg Gaddis, Kennedy’s Morpheus test site manager. “Our team is looking forward to facilitating successful testing this summer.”

The up-coming test represents a new milestone for Project Morpheus, one of 20 small projects comprising the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) program in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. AES projects pioneer new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.


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Weather Forecasters Balance Experience with Technology

When people talk about a meteorologist cooking up a weather forecast, they may be more right than they realize, said one of the forecasters NASA counts on to predict conditions ahead of a launch.

“I compare forecasting a lot to cooking, to be honest,” said Joel Tumbiolo, a meteorologist with the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, the unit that handles forecasting for rockets launched at the Eastern Range on the Atlantic Coast of the United States. “In cooking, you have recipes that you follow, but to be a good cook you have to have a certain taste and feel for it, and I feel there’s a lot of that in weather forecasting.”

The weather team monitors conditions from the ground level to a few thousand feet in the air, a region the rocket will fly through in a minute or two at most. But even a low-hanging cloud can be enough to call off a launch.

“If those couple minutes don’t go right, bad things happen,” Tumbiolo said. “You always wonder, ‘How can a rocket going at that velocity be affected by a cloud?’ But we’ve learned through trial and error that it does affect it.”

The launch teams quickly learn the impact of weather on a countdown, said Omar Baez, launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program, or LSP.

“Weather is one of those things you never think about coming into the rocket business and you quickly learn how it affects our business,” Baez said. “And it’s not just during the launch phase.”

Weather conditions dictate many of the activities around the launch site, not only the launches themselves. For instance, high winds can prevent crews from hoisting a spacecraft onto the top of a rocket. Thunderstorms can stop all activities on the launch pad. So getting a prediction wrong for even minor preparation work can result in a launch delay down the road.

Florida weather doesn’t make it any easier on forecasters. From the thunderstorm that appears almost out of nowhere on a sunny afternoon to invisible winds thousands of feet up, the state’s weather patterns offer plenty of seeming contradictions.

“In a recipe, if you have A, B, C and D, you get a certain result,” Tumbiolo said. “In weather, you can have all the data that tells you something’s going to happen and at the end of the day having something totally different happen. Not only does that challenge me, it interests me.”

Learning to expect and predict frequent changes is perhaps the most important lesson. That is a significant departure from the conditions he saw growing up in the Midwest, where whatever conditions were to the west would reliably become the conditions to the east in a short time.


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Aiming for an Open Window

Why does NASA sometimes schedule a rocket launch for the middle of the night, or aim for a liftoff time when weather is notoriously unlikely to cooperate?

The simplicity of the question belies the complexity of the answer. The best time to start a mission is based on a blend of factors: the flight’s target and goals, the needs of the spacecraft, the type of rocket, and the desired trajectory, which refers to the path the vehicle and spacecraft must take to successfully start the mission. Not only do these variables influence the preferred launch time — the ideal time of departure — but the overall length of the launch window, which can vary from one second to several hours.

The dynamics change from mission to mission, and determining the launch window is an important part of the overall flight design.

“The interesting thing about our job is each mission is almost completely different from any other mission,” said Eric Haddox, the lead flight design engineer in NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Haddox leads the team of agency and contractor personnel overseeing and integrating the trajectory design efforts of the spacecraft team and launch service contractor for each LSP mission. Once the spacecraft team identifies its needs, a rocket is selected, and the work of hammering out the best launch window and trajectory begins. Ultimately, the launch window and preferred liftoff time are set by the launch service contractor.

“We help everybody understand the requirements of the spacecraft and what the capabilities are of the launch vehicle, and try to mesh the two,” Haddox explained.

The most significant deciding factors in when to launch are where the spacecraft is headed, and what its solar needs are. Earth-observing spacecraft, for example, may be sent into low-Earth orbit. Some payloads must arrive at a specific point at a precise time, perhaps to rendezvous with another object or join a constellation of satellites already in place. Missions to the moon or a planet involve aiming for a moving object a long distance away.

For example, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft began its eight-month journey to the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2011 with a launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After the initial push from the powerful Atlas V booster, the Centaur upper stage then sent the spacecraft away from Earth on a specific track to place the laboratory, with its car-sized Curiosity rover, inside Mars’ Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. Due to the location of Mars relative to Earth, the prime planetary launch opportunity for the Red Planet occurs only once every 26 months.

Additionally, spacecraft often have solar requirements: they may need sunlight to perform the science necessary to meet the mission’s objectives, or they may need to avoid the sun’s light in order to look deeper into the dark, distant reaches of space.

Such precision was needed for NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) spacecraft, which launched Oct. 28, 2011 aboard a ULA Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Earth-observing satellite circles at an altitude of 512 miles, sweeping from pole to pole 14 times each day as the planet turns on its axis. A very limited launch window was required so that the spacecraft would cross the ascending node at exactly 1:30 p.m. local time and scan Earth’s surface twice each day, always at the same local time.

All of these variables influence a flight’s trajectory and launch time. A low-Earth mission with specific timing needs must lift off at the right time to slip into the same orbit as its target; a planetary mission typically has to launch when the trajectory will take it away from Earth and out on the correct course.

According to Haddox, aiming for a specific target — another planet, a rendezvous point, or even a specific location in Earth orbit where the solar conditions will be just right — is a bit like skeet shooting.

“You’ve got this object that’s going to go flying out into the air and you’ve got to shoot it,” said Haddox. “You have to be able to judge how far away your target is and how fast it’s moving, and make sure you reach the same point at the same time.”

But Haddox also emphasized that Earth is rotating on its axis while it orbits the sun, making the launch pad a moving platform. With so many moving players, launch windows and trajectories must be carefully choreographed.

Of course, weather or technical problems can interfere with the team’s best plans. Launch windows are intended to absorb small delays while still offering plenty of chances to lift off on a given day. However, launching at a time other than the preferred time could reduce the rocket’s performance, potentially limiting the payload mass.

“To launch at any time other than that optimal time, you’re going to have to alter the trajectory, steer the rocket to get back to that point,” Haddox said. “So that’s where it becomes a trade of, ‘Okay, if my window were a half hour long, how much performance would I need to fly at any time within a half hour? Or, if my window were an hour long, how much performance would I be able to get out of the rocket to fly at any time within that one hour?’”

Likewise, if a spacecraft has to use any of its onboard propellant to make up for any difference in the trajectory, that could impact the entire mission.

“The more propellant they have, the longer they can do maneuvers or adjust things” during the flight, Haddox explained. “It basically equates to how long they can stay in orbit and do their science.”

These potential give-and-take situations are carefully considered during flight planning. Mission managers must find a way to balance the sacrifices while maximizing the chance of getting off the ground.

Even when the launch and mission teams have chosen the best launch window, they face an additional challenge from the U.S. Air Force: collision avoidance, also called COLA. The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing controls the Eastern Range surrounding Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida; the 30th Space Wing operates the Western Range, including Vandenberg Air Force Base. The range determines whether any orbiting spacecraft or debris could strike the vehicle during its climb to space, and cut out portions of the launch window that are too risky.

Collision avoidance can get tricky, because even though the trajectory has been carefully planned, real-time factors result in some uncertainty. For example, during the trajectory design process, the team assumes certain propellant temperatures. But if the temperatures are slightly different on launch day, that will affect the propellant, which in turn alters the efficiency of the rocket’s engines or solid rocket motors.

“The navigation system on the rocket is going to do what it needs to do to get the spacecraft where it needs to be, but it’s not going to be the same trajectory you looked at before,” said Haddox. “When you’ve got things that are moving seven to eight kilometers a second, half a second can result in a big distance.”

“So it just makes things a lot harder to predict,” he added.

On launch day, Haddox and other members of the flight design team are involved in the countdown. Even in the final hours before liftoff, they continue to fine-tune the trajectory analysis based on real-time data collected from weather balloons, ensuring the safety of the rocket and spacecraft as the window opens for another successful mission.


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The Many Moods of Titan

A set of recent papers, many of which draw on data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, reveal new details in the emerging picture of how Saturn’s moon Titan shifts with the seasons and even throughout the day. The papers, published in the journal Planetary and Space Science in a special issue titled “Titan through Time”, show how this largest moon of Saturn is a cousin

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