back to article Mars rovers can keep on rovin'

Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been given the green light to keep on roving, possibly through to the end of 2009. The rovers' continued good health is the only limit mentioned in NASA's announcement of the mission extension. The twin rovers landed on Mars in 2004. The original mission called for the pair to spend three …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    Operating System?

    These rovers must be using Linux as there core operating system!

  2. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    For 4 years all the rovers managed to accomplish was to stuck a few times in the sand (OK - confirms there is sand there!), take pictures of dust devils and "blueberries" and provide some "tantalising" evidence.

    As much as I admire the engineers for making obviously some tough little buggers this just shows inefficient robot space missions are. Bad value for money in other words.

    There is no substitute for proper, manned space exploration and hopefully the futility of the rovers aimless roving will help bring some sense into the heads of some people.

  3. Graham Newton

    Re. Operating System?


  4. Anonymous Coward


    "The rovers run a VxWorks embedded operating system on a radiation-hardened 20 MHz RAD6000 CPU with 128 MB of DRAM with error detection and correction and 3 MB of EEPROM. Each rover also has 256 MB of flash memory."


    The rovers have a RTOS. Take your zealotry elsewhere.



  5. Anonymous Coward

    Re: Futile

    Yes a manned mission might have revealed alot more. However when the rover missions were launched back in 2003 ? we knew nothing about the little red planet.

    We know so much more now that a manned journey is possible.

    The other thing to remember - very vividly is the robots can just power down over winter - humans can't yet hibernate - they just tend to die.

    If we loose a robot - who cares its a robot. Imagine what would happen if we "lost" a team of 4.

    At the moment the journey time to mars is 6-9months ? Thats alot of time to be confined into a small tin can knowing that even if you survive the landing, the 3 months on the planet, the take off you've got another 6-9 months of sitting in a tin can to come home - eek.

    I still don't think that a manned mission will happen for the next 10 years, unless we make a major breakthough in engines.

    If the journey time could be cut down to say a month then it becomes more practicle.

  6. Alex Wright

    Operating System

    The rovers run VxWorks.

    I speak from experience when I say it is an exceedingly good and stable OS.

    It is a joy to work with.

  7. John Miles

    Operating System is commercial offering

    as a few seconds on Goole would told you is called vxworks

    and of course the real science they do could be found similarly.

  8. Mad as a Bat

    @Anonymous Coward

    The rovers use VxWorks as their OS, not Linux.

  9. JeffyPooh



    Wiki: "The rovers run a VxWorks embedded operating system on a radiation-hardened 20 MHz RAD6000 CPU with 128 MB of DRAM with error detection and correction and 3 MB of EEPROM. Each rover also has 256 MB of flash memory."

    I wouldn't be too proud of the OS. They had some issue with lack of garbage file collection in the flash memory and the first rover went completely bonkers. They barely had time to figure it out just before the second rover arrived.

    I'm not expert enough to know for sure if it was exactly an OS issue, or a rover design issue, but either way the OS could have been slightly more helpful.

  10. oxo

    Not Linux !!!

    I think they are using Wind River's VXWorks as the RTOS

  11. Rob


    Of course! Why would you want as much information as possible before sending people out there? Let's just send a group of folks and see how well they get on without any prior knowledge whatsoever...

  12. Christopher J Williams

    Linux - No, actually they run on MACs

    Well almost...

    "The Computer in both Spirit and Opportunity runs with a 32-bit Rad 6000 microprocessor, a radiation-hardened version of the PowerPC chip used in some models of Macintosh computers, operating at a speed of 20 million instructions per second."

    (from the JPL rover site - )

  13. MarkMac

    Operating system

    VxWorks I'm afraid. They need an RTOS to be sufficiently autonomous I would expect.


  14. Ian R

    Not futile

    I find your comments a little short-sighted Vladimir. Any manned mission to Mars would cost 1000s of times more than the robotic missions, and not for ages be able to stay very long - compared to the rovers operational longevity. The rovers have discovered much, not just a few blueberries and dust devils. And don't forget, they are excellent scouts for possible manned landing sites. Their value for money cannot be underestimated, since the budget was accepted on the basis of 3 months life, just think how well that money was spent.

    It is also often forgotten that since Mars is open to almost the full glare of radiation from the sun, all these dreams of exploration and colonisation have to be tempered by the fact that any visitor will have a considerably shortened life expectancy, probably best to go in your 70's.

    There have been a very large amount of robotic missions around the solar system, these have told us an enormous amount, and if we only did manned missions, we would still be stuck making maybe 3 more trips to the moon and know nothing about what was beyond.

    In the future, the development of AI coupled to improving robotic technologies and even limited self-repair, will take us to many more worlds, far sooner, than over-emphasis on manned missions ever will.

  15. Chizo Ejindu

    Re: Futile

    I would strongly disagree about value for money, i personally think they have proven far more cost efficient than a manned mission ever could.

    There is no doubt that a manned mission would be ideal but you have to admit that having a mission originally scheduled to last 3 months pushing on into its 4th year is only feasible with unmanned craft to do the exploring. It would be prohibitively expensive to sustain a group of astronauts on Mars for the length of time the rovers have been roving.

    IMHO robot explorers are the fastest and cheapest way of exploring our solar system. Only if they find something spectacular should the risk and expense of a manned mission be attempted.

  16. mark fernandes

    re: Operating system

    Afraid not - they use the VxWorks embedded OS (

    It's still a pretty impressive & ingenious gizmo - I hope that the Martians are equally impressed :-)

    More on the Rovers systems on the Whacky Wiki Web:-

  17. Nano nano

    Consumer durables

    "After only a year NASA reported that Spirit's drill's teeth had worn away after grinding through five times as much rock as expected."

    ... in contrast with much of today's consumer electrical goods which are cost-squeezed such that they fail immediately after their warranty period or rated number of operations expires - any longer and it would be a failure of the design ...

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Anonymous Coward

    VxWorks, actually

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture


    Umm .. Linux is not the only OS in the world that can keep up and running .. The Mars rovers use the vxWorks RTOS. I'd give the wikipedia reference but then I'd get flamed

  20. BitTwister

    @Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    > There is no substitute for proper, manned space exploration

    The Mars rovers aren't a substitute - they're the initial scouting party and not even vaguely futile.

  21. Colin Jackson
    Thumb Down


    A day's work for a guy in a vacuum suit. I do admire the engineering, but for goodness sake, if anything all this illustrates is how, even after 2 x 3.5 years, even the toughest of robots are severely limited in scope.

  22. szigi
    Thumb Up

    Re: Operating System?

    Well, no. They run on VxWorkx.

  23. Paul Bruneau


    yes, you're right. It would be much better if it were a manned mission so that they could play golf there and hop around like they did on the moon.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Purity of essence

    "There is no substitute for proper, manned space exploration etc"

    This is nonsense. A manned mission to Mars would be extremely conservative. The astronauts would be forbidden from venturing more than a few miles from their base. They would be forbidden from venturing into craters or any environment that would be more hazardous than standing on the Martian surface; they would be just as limited by Martian dust storms as the rovers. They would take no more and no better pictures than the rovers. They would bring back Martian rock, but the expense would be fantastic; enough to fund more, more capable, robot missions.

    I choose Paris Hilton as my avatar, because rock blunts scissors.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    Actually they only have a few small microcontrollers usually found in appliances like microwave ovens, so there is no os on board, just a custom hand written software with a few borrowed libraries like a dos fat driver for the system's flash card and some telecommunications and control equipment. The main science instrument is the spektrometer on the end of their arms. Considering how little they cost they really worth their money. (and you don't have to bring them back like you usually have to in the case when humans go)

    For more info:

  26. Jon Green


    I'm not sure you're watching the same channel. In their time on Mars, the MERs have fed back a huge mass of information about its rock composition, surface structure, meteorology, and more - in short, just exactly the sort of data you need in order to plan out a human exploration mission. If you'd like the astronauts to survive the landing, not to mention the takeoff for the return journey, anyway.

  27. Francis Vaughan


    Actually the rovers run VxWorks. This is a recent triumph for COTS software systems - before Sojourner the OSes tended to be hand crafted. It is always worth remembering that these probes and rovers run what by commodity standards are very primitive hardware. For many years space systems were based upon missile guidance computers. The Mars rovers use a processor clocked at 20MHz, and have 128MB of DRAM. This is a also very major leap forward.

    Hardly Futile. The entire mission cost about $800M. OK, a lot of money in any-ones book. But by far and away the lions share of this was the launch costs. Over $500M. Launch costs are pretty much static, for a given mass to a given place the costs are about the same. You can get some economies, but nothing startling. The cost of getting a manned mission to Mars is breathtaking beyond belief. Let alone the costs of developing the remaining technology.

    Compare with the Lunar missions. The Surveyor missions were considered critical pathfinders before a manned mission could be considered. The manned missions cost at least 100 times as much. And in the end, what did we get? A lot of rocks, most of them still in a secure storage facility in Houston. Yes. sending a person (one of them even a real geologist) helped - they chose better rocks.

    The big win mission will be a robotic sample return mission. Even it will be horrendously expensive, just sending enough mass to include the ability to get a small return capsule back from the surface. Compared to the cost and complexity of getting a human back however it will be minute.

  28. Brian


    I think someone should tell the first poster that the rovers are using VxWorks as their OS

  29. Kenny Millar

    Oh, by the way,

    Has anyone mentioned yet, they run VxWorks - not Linux?

  30. Torben Mogensen

    Manned missions

    I doubt we will see manned missions to Mars before we have a fully working space elevator. An elevator will allow putting large masses in high orbit at relatively modest cost, which will make it possible to assemble a large and heavily shielded spacecraft in orbit. Using rockets to lift things into orbit is prohibitively expensive for something of this scale.

  31. Steve Evans

    Has everyone...

    ..finished saying VxWorks yet?

  32. Anonymous Coward

    STOP !

    Some comments on commentators...

    I think its something about IT people, but we don't half like to jump over anyone else slight mistake, even funnier when I sense that the first poster is slightly tongue in cheek.

    Anal ? I think so .....

  33. Graham Dresch

    VxWorks and JAVA

    An object lesson in how to build an extremely reliable system.

    VxWorks for the low level and Java for the Command and Control

    ( )

  34. Thorin

    @ Anonymous Coward


    And so? Neither of them = they're either. Who were you trying to correct? Were you trying to correct Vladimir in the post before yours? If so you're wrong.

  35. Conway

    Wait a minute

    If we are going to send people then we are going to have to at least make a show of bringing them back. To do this they are going to have to land with enough fuel to get them back off the surface and join the mother ship. The Mothership is going to have to carrying enough fuel to get them home.

    Mars has a higher gravitational pull than the moon and an atmosphere to hinder you. Getting enough fuel up there is going to be difficult, landing with it on board could be classed as suicidal.

    Fuel is going to be a major problem, even with improved engine technologies.

    What we really need is a lighter OS...

  36. Chris

    @ Has everyone...

    No - VxWorks...........VxWorks...........VxWorks...........VxWorks........... VxWorks...........VxWorks...........VxWorks...........VxWorks...........


    I'll get me coat

  37. Ian R

    Space elevators

    The thing about space elevators that really brings the cost down is when you bring stuff down at the same time as taking something up - like junk or raw materials from asteroids/moon. If you only take things up, your 'haulage' costs still are pretty high.

    But you are right, elevators are the way to go, a bit like going from raw meat to cooked meat for early man - saved so much time and energy and enabled man to do so many other things.

  38. Andy Crofts

    Was it so silly??

    ..After all, as the Chinese say "The longest journey starts with a single step". Sure, they're maybe not as good as a human (-who'd be creating at his/her union now, not seeing his wife/mistress/boyfriend/Uphill_Gardener and (maybe) kids for 3 3/4 years longer than planned)

    But, like Sputnik and Laika, they've paved the way. Wasn't the earlier incarnaiton (running on a couple of AA's- what a bloody shame) called "Pathfinder"?


  39. Mostor Astrakan


    The RAD6000 chips are a modified version of the chips that used to go into the IBM RS/6000s. So a manned mission is now imperative. We need an IBM CE to go there to stick on the e-Server badge, paint it black and (never forget) upgrade the firmware.

  40. Kurt Guntheroth

    manned exploration is better, but...

    It isn't possible. Not today.

    We won't be doing manned exploration of Mars for 25 years. There isn't one part of it that we know how to do. Reality is not a sci-fi movie where the director can sweep all the inconvenient stuff under the rug and just beam down for a visit.

    The trip is a year out and a year back in zero-gravity. We don't know how to keep astronauts' bones and muscles from atrophying. If we sent a manned mission to Mars today, they wouldn't be able to stand up (even in Mars light gravity) when they arrived.

    We don't know how to sustain such a long mission without resupply. We send tons and tons of consumable supplies to the ISS each year to support its crew. We send replacements for machines that break. We sent food and water and fuel and air. Sustaining a 2-3 year mission 60 million miles away in the same way would require boosting a ridiculous amount of mass to escape velocity. We will have to learn to make more reliable gear, and self-sutaining environments.

    We have to build a self-launching return vehicle fueled from materials we find on the Martian surface. I assume here that bringing the astronauts home is a mission goal. Otherwise we have to launch from Earth enough fuel for the return mission, keep it cold for a year, and land it on Mars. No way we know how to do that today.

    So, lets be glad we have the rovers. Because otherwise we'd know exactly dick about Mars. I like manned exploration way more, when it's possible. But robots work for me until we have a manned capability.

  41. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    MER rovers as the first step to Mars

    That's all nice if the rovers were meant to be the first step but they were not. They were part of faster-better-cheaper Goldin's way of NASA budget appropriation. And believe me, I admire JPL for persevering and doing a great job on the rovers. The scientists have to do things to survive the political neglect so that when the time comes they can do something really exciting.

    But value for money - I still think not. Yes, it's cheap and yes, it's cheaper than it was thought to be as the rovers still manage to shake off enough dust to be able to function. But the return is cheap too.

    And no, they are not good at finding a potential landing site for a manned mission. To survey a potential site with a rover you already must know where you want to look. To drop a couple of crawlers somewhere at random and hope they will stumble upon a great camping site it a bit naive - Mars is a big place.

    As for human costs, well... how many people die daily in Iraq? People are cheap and plentiful. If you lose a few - there is always more where they came from. OK, you would want to train them to be useful, so there will be an accumulated cost.... But I guarantee, if you annouce a world-wide recruitment campaign for a Mars mission with a 10% probability of returning back safely you will have thousands of applicants in no time.

    After all, some people are so bored they are happy to blow themselves up in public places, let alone fly to another planet.

    Basically, I am not trying to dimish the achievement of the MER mission (showing how much can be done for a relatively modest amount of money). I am just trying to say that it is not the way forward (at least not a serious one).

  42. Glenn Nicholls

    @ Anonymous Coward

    It's great that you corrected that guy's spelling.

    We do need to maintain standards after all.

    BTW loose != lose

  43. dave

    If there's one thing I've learned from this thread...

    it's that the rovers run VXWorks.

    Not that it matters - the entire episode will become largely meaningless once we discover our first Stargate.

  44. MD Rackham

    If the first manned Mars landing is to succeed...

    ...then obviously we must send Linus Torvalds.

  45. Luther Blissett

    Common IT fallacy at work

    "The rovers have already expanded our understanding of the red planet beyond expectations."

    The usual IT fallacy between data and knowledge here. We have lots and lots of new facts, but most of them stand in need of a convincing integrated explanation. Barring that, it would be truer to say we have now less understanding than we thought we had before. And barring that, it will also have been a waste of time and money.

    BTW, I am the only one who thinks these Rovers have such wimpy names? Why not Gog and Magog. Or Scylla and Charybdis. Or Shock and Awe. Or Bill and Steve.

  46. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    "Not that it matters - the entire episode will become largely meaningless once we discover our first Stargate."

    Errr - you will still need an OS to run your rovers, right (the ones you will push through the Stargates)?

  47. Thorin

    re: MER rovers as the first step to Mars

    @ Vladimir

    "And no, they are not good at finding a potential landing site for a manned mission. To survey a potential site with a rover you already must know where you want to look. To drop a couple of crawlers somewhere at random and hope they will stumble upon a great camping site it a bit naive - Mars is a big place."

    You're right, that's what the Mars Recon Orbiter did:

    "Basically, I am not trying to dimish the achievement of the MER mission (showing how much can be done for a relatively modest amount of money). I am just trying to say that it is not the way forward (at least not a serious one)."

    So "the way forward" is to send up the crazies who are happy with your 10% return chance at many many many more times the cost of the rovers?

    Lets be nice and say sending people to Mars only costs 10x as much that's 8.2 Billion for a 90% chance of failure....good idea!

  48. Christopher J Williams

    @ dave and his stargate...

    .... yup and I bet that will be powered by Linux ;)

  49. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    "Lets be nice and say sending people to Mars only costs 10x as much that's 8.2 Billion for a 90% chance of failure....good idea!"

    Aaa, but I did not say 10% mission success probability, it was about 10% safe return probability. There are ways to make sure the mission will succeed even if the crew will fail to return - analyse sample in-situ, transmit the data, send the samples off by an unmanned return vehicle etc.

    Those who would agree to go on such terms should not necessarily be "crazies", just ... enthusiasts.

    And in perspective - what's 8.2 billion comparing to 150 or so billion a year the US spends on Iraq and Afgan wars?

    And I look at that, actually, from this point - we will have to go to Mars (and incur the cost) sooner or later anyway, so playing with robots in the meantime just adds incremental costs to the whole thing.

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Time to restart the OS wars

    VxWorks is a lie! The engineers say that so they can hide their secret pact with the Martians to reboot the rovers on patch Tuesdays.

    I better post this anon, I can hear the black helicopters coming (they sound different from the white ones).

  51. Thorin

    Re: @Thorin

    "And in perspective - what's 8.2 billion comparing to 150 or so billion a year the US spends on Iraq and Afgan wars?"

    Well it's approximately ~5.46% as opposed to ~0.55% for a rover.

    Would American's (or the world) consider the mission a success if the crew didn't return? I highly doubt such a notion would ever be acceptable. Look at how long it look to get the Shuttle back to flight status after a crew died. (If it was purely up to NASA do you think it would have taken so long. Sadly NASA has to exist right along side the court of public opinion).

    Plus sending a crew on such a lengthy mission can't be assumed to have the same arrival and scientific result probabilities as proven robotic technology. So we've lost a rover or satellite or two out of a dozen or so robotic missions big deal. If we end up without a ship any results or a crew it's a big deal (rightly or wrongly).

    If we could just as reliably send a crew and get results back as we currently do with robotic missions I'd completely agree with you however that isn't the reality of the situation. Or if we could do it for the same cost, but that isn't the reality of the situation either.

    Lastly, how do you convince the US Gov't to stop spending 150 Billion+ a year in the middle east and start spending it on Space?

  52. Thorin

    @ Vlad

    Grrr I missed a point in my previous reply.

    "And I look at that, actually, from this point - we will have to go to Mars (and incur the cost) sooner or later anyway, so playing with robots in the meantime just adds incremental costs to the whole thing."

    Again this would be true if the cost was equal or the likelihood of success was equal. Every Robotic mission increases or chances of success and reduces (through research etc) the cost of the future manned mission. 820 million and some electronics is vastly different than 8.2 Billion and a bunch of lives.

  53. Daniel

    Re: manned exploration is better, but...

    "The trip is a year out and a year back in zero-gravity. We don't know how to keep astronauts' bones and muscles from atrophying. If we sent a manned mission to Mars today, they wouldn't be able to stand up (even in Mars light gravity) when they arrived."

    Agreed. This is why we need constant thrust engines for the trip, preferably at reasonable fractions of a G. This has two advantages: 1) the trip becomes much, much shorter, and 2) the constant acceleration provides a form of "gravity" for the astronauts during most of the trip.

    The downside to this is we simply do not have the technology for it at this point in time; the energy requirements are tremendous, essentially mandating the use of some form of nuclear energy source. Once you have a source of energy, you still need some way of actually converting it into thrust. Ion drives seem the most attractive with what we know now, at least we know how to build an ion drive, even if we don't yet know how to scale them up this large. Also ion drives don't require huge quantities of reaction mass, especially if energy is abundant and your drive design is optimized to save reaction mass and consume energy (best trade off for very long, high thrust trips).

    Of course, we COULD send people to mars on low thrust ion drives using solar arrays instead of nuclear power sources, but then we're back to all the problems entailed with 2 year long missions spent mostly in micro-gravity.


  54. Simon Brown
    Paris Hilton

    ion drives

    so someone would have to write drivers for VxWorks to recognise the ion drives then?

  55. Adrian Esdaile

    Someone cocked up...

    ...if a system designed to last 3 months ended up lasting 3 years! That engineer won't get a job a Ford, or Sony, or Apple now will they?

    NASA will have fun with their budgets now too, in true goverment fashion:

    NASA: 'We need another $400mil for some new rovers please Mr.Congress'

    Congress: 'The you're still using the rovers we paid for last time, and you sad they would last three months - so you can have $40mil to last you three years now'

    NASA: "Er, no, but...'

    Congress: 'NO SOUP FOR YOU!'

  56. lglethal Silver badge

    Send some british convicts!

    Australia was colonised by sending British convicts to a big unexplored landmass on the other side of the world without bothering to send out any probes, rovers or even a reconnaissance craft of ANY sort. And look how we Aussies turned out - only 20-odd million people and we consistently beat the rest of the world in most sports!

    Send some British convicts and I'm sure they'll be able to turn that barren Martian landscape into a land worthy of its new name - New Australia!

    Plus there's the added benefit of emptying those overflowing British prisons a bit! ;)

  57. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    Well, about NASA etc - I'm not sure that Americans as a nation are so averse to human losses in space exploration. American politicians surely are though. That's who the "return to flight" program was for. Are Shuttles now safer to fly? - nope. Foam still flies and hits the orbiters. Tiles still fall off. But NASA went through the motions and they are now good kids again...

    And I agree with you, albeit sadly, that the likelihood of the US politicians diverting Iraq war money to space exploration is zero. But I stand by my points about costs, value for money etc.

    MER rovers mission is too remote from manned Mars trip - different hardware, different procedures, everything's different. Every book I read on Apollo and other programs convinces me that you only learn when you start doing things with a particular purpose. You don't learn how to send people to Mars if your mission purpose is remote exploration.

    Also, we must make no mistake - ships are going to crash and people are going to die regardless. Look at Apollo 1, Soyuz 1, Salyut 1, Shuttle 1 (aka Columbia) - OMG, number 1 seems to be bad for space programs.

    But people die all the time - how many test pilots died during the aviation history? How many regular pilots? How many car drivers (and passengers)?

    An A380 will crash one day, taking 400-500 lives with it - and so what? People are not going to stop flying because of it.

    But, forget America, Africa is a more promissing asset in space exploration. All these people in Darfur and other nice places - they starve and kill each other in droves because they have no value proposition to the rest of the world at the moment. Yet, these are people just like you and I, with brains, but they are totally unutilised. Surely, given the state they are in, they must have much more appetite for risk than the Western society, if in return they get the chance to break out of their vicious circle.

    If some bright rich head will go there and bring technology, no matter how experimental, dangerous - he may find a good reception there... but it's all wishful thinking, I admit.

  58. GrahamT


    Forget the convicts, just put the Big Brother house on Mars. You would have people queuing around the block to be on the first mission.

    (Most of the past residents are from another planet anyway.)

    Imagine the Friday night audiences for the evictions:

    "Space cadet Smith, leave the Big Brother Pod now! Errr... no, the space suit won't be necessary."

    You only have to plan to bring one person back, thus keeping the costs down, and the public will have voted out the others (on premium rate phone lines, further subsidising the costs), so no worries about public reaction.

    Buy your shares in EndoMars™ now!

  59. lglethal Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    @ GrahamT

    Where's a TV producer when we need one???

    With the amount of money the TV companies are willing to throw away on crap programming, funding a small expedition to Mars for a new Big Brother would seem like nothing at all!

    Brilliant Idea!!!

    Just wait for the Celebrity Big Brother version... :D

  60. oldfartuk


    Do stargates run Novell then ?

  61. Daniel B.

    @ Graham T

    Maybe US TV producers won't, but at least the Russians might! They did a reality show about astronaut training, the winner would get to go to the ISS. Maybe they'll do something like that???

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