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  • richardmitnick 2:46 pm on March 11, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From JPL: “Spacecraft Data Suggest Saturn Moon’s Ocean May Harbor Hydrothermal Activity” 

    JPL

    March 11, 2015
    Preston Dyches
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-7013
    preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

    Dwayne Brown
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726
    dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

    1
    This cutaway view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus is an artist’s rendering that depicts possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of the moon’s subsurface ocean, based on recently published results from NASA’s Cassini mission. Hydrothermal activity is a process where seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust, emerging as a heated, mineral-laden solution. This is a natural occurrence in Earth’s oceans. Researchers think microscopic grains of rock detected in the Saturn system by Cassini most likely form when hot water containing dissolved minerals from the moon’s rocky interior travels upward, coming into contact with cooler water. Temperatures required for the interactions that produce the tiny rock grains would be at least 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius). On Earth, the most common way to form silica grains of the 6-to-9-nanometer size found by Cassini is hydrothermal activity involving a specific range of conditions. Namely, when slightly alkaline, slightly salty water that is super-saturated with silica undergoes a big drop in temperature. Gravity science measurements from Cassini also suggest Enceladus’ rocky core is quite porous, which would allow water from the ocean to percolate into the interior. This would provide a huge surface area where rock and water could interact. Cassini first revealed active geology on Enceladus in 2005 with evidence of an icy spray issuing from the moon’s south polar region and higher-than-expected temperatures in the icy surface there. With its powerful suite of complementary science instruments, the mission soon revealed a towering plume of water ice and vapor, salts and organic materials that issues from relatively warm fractures on the wrinkled surface. Gravity science results published in 2014 strongly suggested the presence of a 6-mile- (10-kilometer-) deep ocean beneath an ice shell about 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 kilometers) thick.

    Fast Facts:

    › Cassini finds first evidence of active hot-water chemistry beyond planet Earth
    › Findings in two separate papers support the notion
    › The results have important implications for the habitability of icy worlds

    NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has provided scientists the first clear evidence that Saturn’s moon Enceladus exhibits signs of present-day hydrothermal activity which may resemble that seen in the deep oceans on Earth. The implications of such activity on a world other than our planet open up unprecedented scientific possibilities.

    NASA Cassini Spacecraft
    Cassini

    “These findings add to the possibility that Enceladus, which contains a subsurface ocean and displays remarkable geologic activity, could contain environments suitable for living organisms,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The locations in our solar system where extreme environments occur in which life might exist may bring us closer to answering the question: are we alone in the universe.”

    Hydrothermal activity occurs when seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust and emerges as a heated, mineral-laden solution, a natural occurrence in Earth’s oceans. According to two science papers, the results are the first clear indications an icy moon may have similar ongoing active processes.

    The first paper, published this week in the journal Nature, relates to microscopic grains of rock detected by Cassini in the Saturn system. An extensive, four-year analysis of data from the spacecraft, computer simulations and laboratory experiments led researchers to the conclusion the tiny grains most likely form when hot water containing dissolved minerals from the moon’s rocky interior travels upward, coming into contact with cooler water. Temperatures required for the interactions that produce the tiny rock grains would be at least 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius).

    “It’s very exciting that we can use these tiny grains of rock, spewed into space by geysers, to tell us about conditions on — and beneath — the ocean floor of an icy moon,” said the paper’s lead author Sean Hsu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

    Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer (CDA) instrument repeatedly detected miniscule rock particles rich in silicon, even before Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004. By process of elimination, the CDA team concluded these particles must be grains of silica, which is found in sand and the mineral quartz on Earth. The consistent size of the grains observed by Cassini, the largest of which were 6 to 9 nanometers, was the clue that told the researchers a specific process likely was responsible.

    On Earth, the most common way to form silica grains of this size is hydrothermal activity under a specific range of conditions; namely, when slightly alkaline and salty water that is super-saturated with silica undergoes a big drop in temperature.

    “We methodically searched for alternate explanations for the nanosilica grains, but every new result pointed to a single, most likely origin,” said co-author Frank Postberg, a Cassini CDA team scientist at Heidelberg University in Germany.

    Hsu and Postberg worked closely with colleagues at the University of Tokyo who performed the detailed laboratory experiments that validated the hydrothermal activity hypothesis. The Japanese team, led by Yasuhito Sekine, verified the conditions under which silica grains form at the same size Cassini detected. The researchers think these conditions may exist on the seafloor of Enceladus, where hot water from the interior meets the relatively cold water at the ocean bottom.

    The extremely small size of the silica particles also suggests they travel upward relatively quickly from their hydrothermal origin to the near-surface sources of the moon’s geysers. From seafloor to outer space, a distance of about 30 miles (50 kilometers), the grains spend a few months to a few years in transit, otherwise they would grow much larger.

    The authors point out that Cassini’s gravity measurements suggest Enceladus’ rocky core is quite porous, which would allow water from the ocean to percolate into the interior. This would provide a huge surface area where rock and water could interact.

    The second paper, recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, suggests hydrothermal activity as one of two likely sources of methane in the plume of gas and ice particles that erupts from the south polar region of Enceladus. The finding is the result of extensive modeling to address why methane, as previously sampled by Cassini, is curiously abundant in the plume.

    The team found that, at the high pressures expected in the moon’s ocean, icy materials called clathrates could form that imprison methane molecules within a crystal structure of water ice. Their models indicate that this process is so efficient at depleting the ocean of methane that the researchers still needed an explanation for its abundance in the plume.

    In one scenario, hydrothermal processes super-saturate the ocean with methane. This could occur if methane is produced faster than it is converted into clathrates. A second possibility is that methane clathrates from the ocean are dragged along into the erupting plumes and release their methane as they rise, like bubbles forming in a popped bottle of champagne.

    The authors agree both scenarios are likely occurring to some degree, but they note that the presence of nanosilica grains, as documented by the other paper, favors the hydrothermal scenario.

    “We didn’t expect that our study of clathrates in the Enceladus ocean would lead us to the idea that methane is actively being produced by hydrothermal processes,” said lead author Alexis Bouquet, a graduate student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Bouquet worked with co-author Hunter Waite, who leads the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) team at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

    Cassini first revealed active geological processes on Enceladus in 2005 with evidence of an icy spray issuing from the moon’s south polar region and higher-than-expected temperatures in the icy surface there. With its powerful suite of complementary science instruments, the mission soon revealed a towering plume of water ice and vapor, salts and organic materials that issues from relatively warm fractures on the wrinkled surface. Gravity science results published in 2014 strongly suggested the presence of a 6-mile- (10-kilometer-) deep ocean beneath an ice shell about 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 kilometers) thick.

    The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini CDA instrument was provided by the German Aerospace Center. The instrument team, led by Ralf Srama, is based at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

    More information about Cassini, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

    and

    http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 1:43 pm on February 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From JPL: “A New Way to View Titan: ‘Despeckle’ It” 

    JPL

    February 11, 2015
    Preston Dyches
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-7013
    preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

    During 10 years of discovery, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has pulled back the smoggy veil that obscures the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

    NASA Cassini Spacecraft

    Cassini’s radar instrument has mapped almost half of the giant moon’s surface; revealed vast, desert-like expanses of sand dunes; and plumbed the depths of expansive hydrocarbon seas. What could make that scientific bounty even more amazing? Well, what if the radar images could look even better?

    Thanks to a recently developed technique for handling noise in Cassini’s radar images, these views now have a whole new look. The technique, referred to by its developers as “despeckling,” produces images of Titan’s surface that are much clearer and easier to look at than the views to which scientists and the public have grown accustomed.

    Typically, Cassini’s radar images have a characteristic grainy appearance. This “speckle noise” can make it difficult for scientists to interpret small-scale features or identify changes in images of the same area taken at different times. Despeckling uses an algorithm to modify the noise, resulting in clearer views that can be easier for researchers to interpret.

    Antoine Lucas got the idea to apply this new technique while working with members of Cassini’s radar team when he was a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

    “Noise in the images gave me headaches,” said Lucas, who now works at the astrophysics division of France’s nuclear center (CEA). Knowing that mathematical models for handling the noise might be helpful, Lucas searched through research published by that community, which is somewhat disconnected from people working directly with scientific data. He found that a team near Paris was working on a “de-noising” algorithm, and he began working with them to adapt their model to the Cassini radar data. The collaboration resulted in some new and innovative analysis techniques.

    “My headaches were gone, and more importantly, we were able to go further in our understanding of Titan’s surface using the new technique,” Lucas said.

    As helpful as the tool has been, for now, it is being used selectively.

    “This is an amazing technique, and Antoine has done a great job of showing that we can trust it not to put features into the images that aren’t really there,” said Randy Kirk, a Cassini radar team member from the U.S. Geologic Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. Kirk said the radar team is going to have to prioritize which images are the most important to applying the technique. “It takes a lot of computation, and at the moment quite a bit of ‘fine-tuning’ to get the best results with each new image, so for now we’ll likely be despeckling only the most important — or most puzzling — images,” Kirk said.

    Despeckling Cassini’s radar images has a variety of scientific benefits. Lucas and colleagues have shown that they can produce 3-D maps, called digital elevation maps, of Titan’s surface with greatly improved quality. With clearer views of river channels, lake shorelines and windswept dunes, researchers are also able to perform more precise analyses of processes shaping Titan’s surface. And Lucas suspects that the speckle noise itself, when analyzed separately, may hold information about properties of the surface and subsurface.

    “This new technique provides a fresh look at the data, which helps us better understand the original images,” said Stephen Wall, deputy team lead of Cassini’s radar team, which is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “With this innovative new tool, we will look for details that help us to distinguish among the different processes that shape Titan’s surface,” he said.

    Details about the new technique were published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

    The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The VIMS team is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the US and several European countries.

    More information about Cassini:

    http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

    http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

    Despeckling Ligea Mare

    1
    Presented here are side-by-side comparisons of a traditional Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) view and one made using a new technique for handling electronic noise that results in clearer views of Titan’s surface. The technique, called despeckling, produces images that can be easier for researchers to interpret.

    The view is a mosaic of SAR swaths over Ligeia Mare, one of the large hydrocarbons seas on Titan. In particular, despeckling improves the visibility of channels flowing down to the sea.

    Perspective on Kraken Mare Shores

    2
    This Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) image is presented as a perspective view and shows a landscape near the eastern shoreline of Kraken Mare, a hydrocarbon sea in Titan’s north polar region. This image was processed using a technique for handling noise that results in clearer views that can be easier for researchers to interpret. The technique, called despeckling, also is useful for producing altimetry data and 3-D views called digital elevation maps.

    Scientists have used a technique called radargrammetry to determine the altitude of surface features in this view at a resolution of approximately half a mile, or 1 kilometer. The altimetry reveals that the area is smooth overall, with a maximum amplitude of 0.75 mile (1.2 kilometers) in height. The topography also shows that all observed channels flow downhill.

    The presence of what scientists call “knickpoints” — locations on a river where a sharp change in slope occurs — might indicate stratification in the bedrock, erosion mechanisms at work or a particular way the surface responds to runoff events, such as floods following large storms. One such knickpoint is visible just above the lower left corner, where an area of bright slopes is seen.

    The image was obtained during a flyby of Titan on April 10, 2007. A more traditional radar image of this area on Titan is seen in PIA19046.

    Titan Despeckled Montage

    3
    This montage of Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images of the surface of Titan shows four examples of how a newly developed technique for handling noise results in clearer, easier to interpret views. The top row of images was produced in the manner used since the mission arrived in the Saturn system a decade ago; the row at bottom was produced using the new technique.

    The three leftmost image pairs show bays and spits of land in Ligea Mare, one of Titan’s large hydrocarbon seas. The rightmost pair shows a valley network along Jingpo Lacus, one of Titan’s larger northern lakes.

    North is toward the left in these images. Each thumbnail represents an area 70 miles (112 kilometers) wide.

    Leilah Fluctus Despeckled

    4
    Presented here are side-by-side comparisons of a traditional Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) view, at left, and one made using a new technique for handling electronic noise that results in clearer views of Titan’s surface, at right. The technique, called despeckling, produces images that can be easier for researchers to interpret.

    The terrain seen here is in the flow region named Leilah Fluctus (55 degrees north, 80 degrees west). With the speckle noise suppressed, the overall pattern of bright and dark in the scene becomes more apparent. In particular, cone-shaped features near lower right stand out, which could be alluvial analogues on Titan — features produced by the action of rivers or floods.

    North is toward right in this image, which shows an area about 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide.

    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 3:37 pm on January 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA JPL,   

    From JPL: “Citizen Scientists Lead Astronomers to Mystery Objects in Space” 

    JPL

    January 27, 2015
    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
    818-354-4673
    whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    Volunteers using the web-based Milky Way Project brought star-forming features nicknamed “yellowballs” to the attention of researchers, who later showed that they are a phase of massive star formation. The yellow balls — which are several hundred to thousands times the size of our solar system — are pictured here in the center of this image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared light has been assigned different colors; yellow occurs where green and red overlap. The yellow balls represent an intermediary stage of massive star formation that takes place before massive stars carve out cavities in the surrounding gas and dust (seen as green-rimmed bubbles with red interiors in this image).

    Infrared light of 3.6 microns is blue; 8-micron light is green; and 24-micron light is red.

    2
    This series of images show three evolutionary phases of massive star formation, as pictured in infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The stars start out in thick cocoon of dust (left), evolve into hotter features dubbed “yellowballs” (center); and finally, blow out cavities in the surrounding dust and gas, resulting in green-rimmed bubbles with red centers (right). The process shown here takes roughly a million years. Even the oldest phase shown here is fairly young, as massive stars live a few million years. Eventually, the stars will migrate away from their birth clouds.

    In this image, infrared light of 3.6 microns is blue; 8-micron light is green; and 24-micron light is red.

    NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

    NASA Spitzer Telescope
    Spitzer

    Milkyway@home
    MilkyWay@home

    Milkyway@Home uses the BOINC platform to harness volunteered computing resources, creating a highly accurate three dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy using data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). This project enables research in both astroinformatics and computer science.

    SDSS Telescope
    SDSS Telescope

    BOINC

    In computer science, the project is investigating different optimization methods which are resilient to the fault-prone, heterogeneous and asynchronous nature of Internet computing; such as evolutionary and genetic algorithms, as well as asynchronous newton methods. While in astroinformatics, Milkyway@Home is generating highly accurate three dimensional models of the Sagittarius stream, which provides knowledge about how the Milky Way galaxy was formed and how tidal tails are created when galaxies merge.

    Milkyway@Home is a joint effort between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute‘s departments of Computer Science and Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy. Feel free to contact us via our forums, or email astro@cs.lists.rpi.edu.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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    • academix2015 4:22 pm on January 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Web based Milky Way project would open up new opportunities for amateur astronomers. Thank you.

      Like

    • academix2015 4:22 pm on January 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      Reblogged this on Academic Avenue and commented:
      How about studying the intricacies of the astronomical processes and phenomena in the Milky Way?

      Like

  • richardmitnick 3:24 pm on January 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , NASA JPL, , Soil Moisture   

    From JPL: “SMAP Will Track a Tiny Cog That Keeps Cycles Spinning” 

    JPL

    January 26, 2015
    Carol Rasmussen
    NASA Earth Science News Team

    1
    Water evaporating from forest soil in the morning sun. Soil moisture links together the cycles of water, solar energy, and carbon in plants. Image credit: USDA

    When you open the back of a fine watch, you see layer upon layer of spinning wheels linked by interlocking cogs, screws and wires. Some of the cogs are so tiny they’re barely visible. Size doesn’t matter — what’s important is that the cogs fit together well so the wheels keep turning smoothly.

    For centuries, scientists have thought of the Earth system as a series of cycles or interlocking wheels like the ones in a watch. It’s a way to make sense of the movements of water and other essentials back and forth between the air and the land, ocean and soil or rock beneath them. In today’s changing climate, some cycles are spinning faster or beginning to wobble. There’s an urgent need to understand what is happening to the cogs that keep these cycles turning.

    The minuscule fraction of Earth’s water lodged just beneath the land surface is a tiny cog that links the water cycle to two other fundamental Earth cycles: energy and carbon. “That linkage is what makes these three gears turn with a certain harmony,” said Dara Entekhabi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Entekhabi is science team leader for NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, scheduled to launch Jan. 29. Developed and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, SMAP will provide the most accurate information ever about this small but critical cog.

    NASA SMAP
    SMAP

    You may have learned about the water cycle in school: Water falls from the sky to the land when it rains or snows, and rises from the land back to the sky when it heats up and evaporates. Your teacher may not have mentioned that water vapor isn’t the only thing that rises. The heat energy that turned liquid water into vapor also rises, cooling Earth’s surface. In fact, evaporating soil moisture is the main way that land sheds the solar energy it receives every day and thus is a major player in the energy cycle. “It’s the first process to kick in when the surface heats up, and it continues as long as there is moisture in the soil that can evaporate,” Entekhabi said. Evaporation gets rid of nearly half of the solar energy that reaches land, keeping our planet’s temperature comfortable.

    If there’s any moisture at all in soil, there’s probably a plant growing there. That’s why most evaporation from soil starts with a plant absorbing water through its roots. Plants need water for photosynthesis, their food-creating process. During photosynthesis they “sweat” — or transpire — water onto their leaves, where it evaporates.

    Besides using water and energy, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. Over land, this is virtually the only natural way for carbon to be removed from the atmosphere. Soil moisture keeps this vital carbon highway open by enabling plants to continue growing. “If a plant has access to water, it happily carries on with photosynthesis,” Entekhabi said. “If not, the plant shuts down, and eventually it wilts and dies.”

    After SMAP launches, the new data it will provide are expected to help scientists answer some long-standing questions about what is likely to happen to these important Earth cycles in a changing climate. Entekhabi hopes to take advantage of the synergy available between SMAP and NASA’s new Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, which measures global carbon dioxide. “We have talked a lot with the OCO-2 scientists about how we can use simultaneous measurements to solve the puzzle of how plants respond to soil moisture and how the carbon cycle and the water cycle are linked,” he said. “If we get that linkage right, we will reduce the uncertainty in future climate projections and know more about how terrestrial plants are going to act in the future.”

    NASA Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2
    OCO-2

    For more about SMAP, see:

    http://smap.jpl.nasa.gov/

    http://www.nasa.gov/smap/

    SMAP will be the last of five NASA Earth science launches within 12 months. NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

    For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 12:08 pm on January 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA JPL   

    From JPL: “Machines Teach Astronomers About Stars” 

    JPL

    January 8, 2015
    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-4673
    whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    Astronomers have turned to a method called “machine learning” to help them understand the properties of large numbers of stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Astronomers are enlisting the help of machines to sort through thousands of stars in our galaxy and learn their sizes, compositions and other basic traits.

    The research is part of the growing field of machine learning, in which computers learn from large data sets, finding patterns that humans might not otherwise see. Machine learning is in everything from media-streaming services that predict what you want to watch, to the post office, where computers automatically read handwritten addresses and direct mail to the correct zip codes.

    Now astronomers are turning to machines to help them identify basic properties of stars based on sky survey images. Normally, these kinds of details require a spectrum, which is a detailed sifting of the starlight into different wavelengths. But with machine learning, computer algorithms can quickly flip through available stacks of images, identifying patterns that reveal a star’s properties. The technique has the potential to gather information on billions of stars in a relatively short time and with less expense.

    “It’s like video-streaming services not only predicting what you would like to watch in the future, but also your current age, based on your viewing preferences,” said Adam Miller of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, lead author of a new report on the findings appearing in the Astrophysical Journal. “We are predicting fundamental properties of the stars.”

    Miller presented the results today at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

    Machine learning has been applied to the cosmos before; what makes this latest effort unique is that it is the first to predict specific traits of stars, such as size and metal content, using images of those stars taken over time. These traits are essential to learning about when a star was born, and how it has changed since that time.

    “With more information about the different kinds of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, we can better map the galaxy’s structure and history,” said Miller.

    Every night, telescopes around the world obtain thousands of images of the sky. The flood of new data is only expected to rise with upcoming wide-field surveys like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a National Science Foundation and Department of Energy project that will be based in Chile. That survey will image the entire visible sky every few nights, gathering data on billions of stars and how some of those stars change in brightness over time. NASA’s Kepler mission has already captured the same kind of time-varying data on hundreds of thousands of stars.

    LSST Telescope
    LSSTLSST Exterior
    LSST

    Humans alone can’t easily make sense of all this data. That is where machines, or in this case, computers using specialized algorithms, can help out.

    But before the machines can learn, they first need a “training period.” Miller and his colleagues started with 9,000 stars as their training set. They obtained spectra for these stars, which revealed several of their basic properties: sizes, temperatures and the amount of heavy elements, such as iron. The varying brightness of the stars had also been recorded by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, producing plots called light curves. By feeding the computer both sets of data, it could then make associations between the star properties and the light curves.

    Once the training phase was over, the computer was able to make predictions on its own about other stars by only analyzing light-curves.

    “We can discover and classify new types of stars without the need for spectra, which are expensive and time-consuming to obtain,” said Miller.

    The technique essentially works in the same way as email spam filters. The spam filters are programmed to identify key words associated with junk mail, and then remove the unwanted emails containing those words. With time, a user continues to “teach” the filtering program more key words, and the program becomes better at filtering spam. The machine learning program used by Miller and collaborators likewise becomes better at accurately predicting properties of the stars with additional training from the astronomers.

    The team’s next goal is to get their computers smart enough to handle the more than 50 million variable stars that the LSST project will observe.

    “This is an exciting time to be applying advanced algorithms to astronomy,” said Miller. “Machine learning allows us to mine for rare and obscure gems within the deep data sets that astronomers are only now beginning to acquire.”

    The Astrophysical Journal study is online at: http://iopscience.iop.org/0004-637X/798/2/122/article.

    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 7:14 am on January 17, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From JPL: “NASA’s NEOWISE Images Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) “ 

    JPL

    1
    Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) is one of more than 32 comets imaged by NASA’s NEOWISE mission from December 2013 to December 2014. This image of comet Lovejoy combines a series of observations made in November 2013, when comet Lovejoy was 1.7 astronomical units from the sun. (An astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the sun.)

    The image spans half of one degree. It shows the comet moving in a mostly west and slightly south direction. (North is 26 degrees to the right of up in the image, and west is 26 degrees downward from directly right.) The red color is caused by the strong signal in the NEOWISE 4.6-micron wavelength detector, owing to a combination of gas and dust in the comet’s coma.

    Comet Lovejoy is the brightest comet in Earth’s sky in early 2015. A chart of its location in the sky during dates in January 2015 is at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA19103 .

    For more information about NEOWISE (the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer), see http://neowise.ipac.caltech.edu/.

    NASA Wise Telescope
    NASA/Wise

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Stem Education Coalition

    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 8:30 pm on January 8, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From JPL: “Will the Real Monster Black Hole Please Stand Up?” 

    JPL

    January 8, 2015
    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-4673
    whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

    3

    A new high-energy X-ray image from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has pinpointed the true monster of a galactic mashup. The image shows two colliding galaxies, collectively called Arp 299, located 134 million light-years away. Each of the galaxies has a supermassive black hole at its heart.

    a
    Arp299

    NASA NuSTAR
    NuSTAR

    [Above first image]NuSTAR has revealed that the black hole located at the right of the pair is actively gorging on gas, while its partner is either dormant or hidden under gas and dust.

    The findings are helping researchers understand how the merging of galaxies can trigger black holes to start feeding, an important step in the evolution of galaxies.

    “When galaxies collide, gas is sloshed around and driven into their respective nuclei, fueling the growth of black holes and the formation of stars,” said Andrew Ptak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, lead author of a new study accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. “We want to understand the mechanisms that trigger the black holes to turn on and start consuming the gas.”

    NuSTAR is the first telescope capable of pinpointing where high-energy X-rays are coming from in the tangled galaxies of Arp 299. Previous observations from other telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton, which detect lower-energy X-rays, had indicated the presence of active supermassive black holes in Arp 299. However, it was not clear from those data alone if one or both of the black holes was feeding, or “accreting,” a process in which a black hole bulks up in mass as its gravity drags gas onto it.

    NASA Chandra Telescope
    Chandra

    ESA XMM Newton
    XMM-Newton

    The new X-ray data from NuSTAR — overlaid on a visible-light image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope — show that the black hole on the right is, in fact, the hungry one. As it feeds on gas, energetic processes close to the black hole heat electrons and protons to about hundreds of millions of degrees, creating a superhot plasma, or corona, that boosts the visible light up to high-energy X-rays. Meanwhile, the black hole on the left either is “snoozing away,” in what is referred to as a quiescent, or dormant state, or is buried in so much gas and dust that the high-energy X-rays can’t escape.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    Hubble

    “Odds are low that both black holes are on at the same time in a merging pair of galaxies,” said Ann Hornschemeier, a co-author of the study who presented the results Thursday at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle. “When the cores of the galaxies get closer, however, tidal forces slosh the gas and stars around vigorously, and, at that point, both black holes may turn on.”

    NuSTAR is ideally suited to study heavily obscured black holes such as those in Arp 299. High-energy X-rays can penetrate the thick gas, whereas lower-energy X-rays and light get blocked.

    Ptak said, “Before now, we couldn’t pinpoint the real monster in the merger.”

    NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Va. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley ; Columbia University, New York; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.; ATK Aerospace Systems, Goleta, Calif., and with support from the Italian Space Agency (ASI) Science Data Center.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 12:18 pm on January 7, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From JPL: “NASA Robot Plunges Into Volcano to Explore Fissure” 

    JPL

    January 7, 2015
    Elizabeth Landau
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6425
    elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

    Volcanoes have always fascinated Carolyn Parcheta. She remembers a pivotal moment watching a researcher take a lava sample on a science TV program video in 6th grade.

    “I said to myself, I’m going to do that some day,” said Parcheta, now a NASA postdoctoral fellow based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    Exploring volcanoes is risky business. That’s why Parcheta and her co-advisor, JPL robotics researcher Aaron Parness, are developing robots that can get into crevices where humans wouldn’t be able to go, gaining new insights about these wondrous geological features.

    “We don’t know exactly how volcanoes erupt. We have models but they are all very, very simplified. This project aims to help make those models more realistic,” Parcheta said.

    Parcheta’s research endeavors were recently honored in National Geographic‘s Expedition Granted campaign, which awards $50,000 to the next “great explorer.” Parcheta was a finalist, and was voted number 2 by online participants for her research proposal for exploring volcanoes with robots.

    “Having Carolyn in the lab has been a great opportunity for our robotics team to collaborate with someone focused on the geology. Scientists and engineers working together on such a small team is pretty rare, but has generated lots of great ideas because our perspectives on the problems are so different,” Parness said.

    The research has implications for extraterrestrial volcanoes. On both Earth and Mars, fissures are the most common physical features from which magma erupts. This is probably also true for the previously active volcanoes on the moon, Mercury, Enceladus and Europa, although the mechanism of volcanic eruption — whether past or present — on these other planetary bodies is unknown, Parcheta said.

    m
    Lava flow on Hawaii. Lava is the extrusive equivalent of magma.

    “In the last few years, NASA spacecraft have sent back incredible pictures of caves, fissures and what look like volcanic vents on Mars and the moon. We don’t have the technology yet to explore them, but they are so tantalizing! Working with Carolyn, we’re trying to bridge that gap using volcanoes here on Earth for practice. We’re learning about how volcanoes erupt here on Earth, too, and that has a lot of benefits in its own right,” Parness said.

    Parcheta, Parness, and JPL co-advisor Karl Mitchell first explored this idea last year using a two-wheeled robot they call VolcanoBot 1, with a length of 12 inches (30 centimeters) and 6.7-inch (17-centimeter) wheels. It is a spinoff of a different robot that Parness’s laboratory developed, the Durable Reconnaissance and Observation Platform (DROP).

    “We took that concept and redesigned it to work inside a volcano,” Parcheta said.

    For their experiments in May 2014, they had VolcanoBot 1 roll down a fissure – a crack that erupts magma – that is now inactive on the active Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.

    Finding preserved and accessible fissures is rare. VolcanoBot 1 was tasked with mapping the pathways of magma from May 5 to 9, 2014. It was able to descend to depths of 82 feet (25 meters) in two locations on the fissure, although it could have gone deeper with a longer tether, as the bottom was not reached on either descent.

    “In order to eventually understand how to predict eruptions and conduct hazard assessments, we need to understand how the magma is coming out of the ground. This is the first time we have been able to measure it directly, from the inside, to centimeter-scale accuracy,” Parcheta said.

    VolcanoBot 1 is enabling the researchers to put together a 3-D map of the fissure. They confirmed that bulges in the rock wall seen on the surface are also present deep in the ground, but the robot also found a surprise: The fissure did not appear to pinch shut, although VolcanoBot 1 didn’t reach the bottom. The researchers want to return to the site and go even deeper to investigate further.

    Specifically, Parcheta and Parness want to explore deeper inside Kilauea with a robot that has even stronger motors and electrical communications, so that more data can be sent back to the surface. They have responded to these challenges with the next iteration: VolcanoBot 2.

    VolcanoBot 2 is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, at a length of 10 inches (25 centimeters). Its vision center can tip up and down, with the ability to turn and look at features around it.

    “It has better mobility, stronger motors and smaller (5 inch, or 12 centimeter) wheels than the VolcanoBot 1. We’ve decreased the amount of cords that come up to the surface when it’s in a volcano,” Parcheta said.

    While VolcanoBot 1 sent data to the surface directly from inside the fissure, data will be stored onboard VolcanoBot 2. VolcanoBot 2 has an electrical connection that is more secure and robust so that researchers can use the 3-D sensor’s live video feed to navigate.

    The team plans to test VolcanoBot 2 at Kilauea in early March.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 1:55 pm on January 6, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA/JPL: What’s Up in January 2015 

    JPL

    Jupiter’s moons are putting on an amazing show this month. The orbital path of the moons is tilting edge-on to Earth and the sun. This lineup makes it possible to watch the moons pass in front of each other and even eclipse each other with their shadows. Get all the details, including where to find Jupiter in the sky this month, in this edition of What’s Up.

    Watch, enjoy, learn.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Stem Education Coalition

    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 11:52 am on December 31, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA: “NASA Finds Good News on Forests and Carbon Dioxide” 

    JPL

    December 29, 2014
    Carol Rasmussen
    NASA Earth Science News Team

    A new NASA-led study shows that tropical forests may be absorbing far more carbon dioxide than many scientists thought, in response to rising atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas. The study estimates that tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total global absorption of 2.5 billion — more than is absorbed by forests in Canada, Siberia and other northern regions, called boreal forests.

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    “This is good news, because uptake in boreal forests is already slowing, while tropical forests may continue to take up carbon for many years,” said David Schimel of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Schimel is lead author of a paper on the new research, appearing online today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

    Forests and other land vegetation currently remove up to 30 percent of human carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. If the rate of absorption were to slow down, the rate of global warming would speed up in return.

    The new study is the first to devise a way to make apples-to-apples comparisons of carbon dioxide estimates from many sources at different scales: computer models of ecosystem processes, atmospheric models run backward in time to deduce the sources of today’s concentrations (called inverse models), satellite images, data from experimental forest plots and more. The researchers reconciled all types of analyses and assessed the accuracy of the results based on how well they reproduced independent, ground-based measurements. They obtained their new estimate of the tropical carbon absorption from the models they determined to be the most trusted and verified.

    “Until our analysis, no one had successfully completed a global reconciliation of information about carbon dioxide effects from the atmospheric, forestry and modeling communities,” said co-author Joshua Fisher of JPL. “It is incredible that all these different types of independent data sources start to converge on an answer.”

    The question of which type of forest is the bigger carbon absorber “is not just an accounting curiosity,” said co-author Britton Stephens of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. “It has big implications for our understanding of whether global terrestrial ecosystems might continue to offset our carbon dioxide emissions or might begin to exacerbate climate change.”

    As human-caused emissions add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, forests worldwide are using it to grow faster, reducing the amount that stays airborne. This effect is called carbon fertilization. “All else being equal, the effect is stronger at higher temperatures, meaning it will be higher in the tropics than in the boreal forests,” Schimel said.

    But climate change also decreases water availability in some regions and makes Earth warmer, leading to more frequent and larger wildfires. In the tropics, humans compound the problem by burning wood during deforestation. Fires don’t just stop carbon absorption by killing trees, they also spew huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as the wood burns.

    For about 25 years, most computer climate models have been showing that mid-latitude forests in the Northern Hemisphere absorb more carbon than tropical forests. That result was initially based on the then-current understanding of global air flows and limited data suggesting that deforestation was causing tropical forests to release more carbon dioxide than they were absorbing.

    In the mid-2000s, Stephens used measurements of carbon dioxide made from aircraft to show that many climate models were not correctly representing flows of carbon above ground level. Models that matched the aircraft measurements better showed more carbon absorption in the tropical forests. However, there were still not enough global data sets to validate the idea of a large tropical-forest absorption. Schimel said that their new study took advantage of a great deal of work other scientists have done since Stephens’ paper to pull together national and regional data of various kinds into robust, global data sets.

    Schimel noted that their paper reconciles results at every scale from the pores of a single leaf, where photosynthesis takes place, to the whole Earth, as air moves carbon dioxide around the globe. “What we’ve had up till this paper was a theory of carbon dioxide fertilization based on phenomena at the microscopic scale and observations at the global scale that appeared to contradict those phenomena. Here, at least, is a hypothesis that provides a consistent explanation that includes both how we know photosynthesis works and what’s happening at the planetary scale.”

    NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

    For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities in the last year, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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