Press Releases 2003

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eso0320 — Science Release
New Fast Lane towards Discoveries of Clusters of Galaxies Inaugurated
14 July 2003: Using the ESA XMM-Newton satellite, a team of European and Chilean astronomers [2] has obtained the world's deepest "wide-field" X-ray image of the cosmos to date. This penetrating view, when complemented with observations by some of the largest and most efficient ground-based optical telescopes, including the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), has resulted in the discovery of several large clusters of galaxies. These early results from an ambitious research programme are extremely promising and pave the way for a very comprehensive and thorough census of clusters of galaxies at various epochs. Relying on the foremost astronomical technology and with an unequalled observational efficiency, this project is set to provide new insights into the structure and evolution of the distant Universe.
eso0319 — Science Release
A First Look at the Doughnut Around a Giant Black Hole
19 June 2003: Active galactic nuclei (AGN) are one of the most energetic and mysterious phenomena in the universe. In some galaxies indeed, the core generates amounts of energy which surpass those of normal galaxies, such as the Milky Way, by many orders of magnitude. The central engine of these power stations is thought to be a supermassive black hole. Indirect lines of evidence have suggested that these massive black holes are enshrouded in a thick doughnut-shaped structure of gas and dust, which astronomers call a "torus". However, due to the limited sharpness of images that can be obtained with present telescopes in the 10-m range, such a torus has never been imaged to date. Using the new and powerful VLT Interferometer [1] - a mode of the ESO Very Large Telescope that combines light from at least two telescopes to obtain information on very fine scales - a team of European astronomers [2] has succeeded for the first time in resolving structures in the dusty torus of the prototype AGN, the famous galaxy NGC 1068. The structures have a size of roughly 0.03 arcsec, corresponding to about 10 light-years at the distance of the galaxy. This important achievement shows that the VLT Interferometer, using the recently inaugurated MIDI instrument [3], proves an invaluable tool in the study of objects outside our own Galaxy.
eso0318 — Science Release
Cosmological Gamma-Ray Bursts and Hypernovae Conclusively Linked
18 June 2003: A very bright burst of gamma-rays was observed on March 29, 2003 by NASA's High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE-II) , in a sky region within the constellation Leo. Within 90 min, a new, very bright light source (the "optical afterglow") was detected in the same direction by means of a 40-inch telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory (Australia) and also in Japan. The gamma-ray burst was designated GRB 030329 , according to the date. And within 24 hours, a first, very detailed spectrum of this new object was obtained by the UVES high-dispersion spectrograph on the 8.2-m VLT KUEYEN telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). It allowed to determine the distance as about 2,650 million light-years (redshift 0.1685). Continued observations with the FORS1 and FORS2 multi-mode instruments on the VLT during the following month allowed an international team of astronomers [1] to document in unprecedented detail the changes in the spectrum of the optical afterglow of this gamma-ray burst . Their detailed report appears in the June 19 issue of the research journal "Nature". The spectra show the gradual and clear emergence of a supernova spectrum of the most energetic class known, a "hypernova" . This is caused by the explosion of a very heavy star - presumably over 25 times heavier than the Sun. The measured expansion velocity (in excess of 30,000 km/sec) and the total energy released were exceptionally high, even within the elect hypernova class. From a comparison with more nearby hypernovae, the astronomers are able to fix with good accuracy the moment of the stellar explosion. It turns out to be within an interval of plus/minus two days of the gamma-ray burst. This unique conclusion provides compelling evidence that the two events are directly connected. These observations therefore indicate a common physical process behind the hypernova explosion and the associated emission of strong gamma-ray radiation. The team concludes that it is likely to be due to the nearly instantaneous, non-symmetrical collapse of the inner region of a highly developed star (known as the "collapsar" model). The March 29 gamma-ray burst will pass into the annals of astrophysics as a rare "type-defining event", providing conclusive evidence of a direct link between cosmological gamma-ray bursts and explosions of very massive stars.
eso0317 — Science Release
Curtain-Lifting Winds Allow Rare Glimpse into Massive Star Factory
16 June 2003: Based on a vast observational effort with different telescopes and instruments, ESO-astronomer Dieter Nürnberger has obtained a first glimpse of the very first stages in the formation of heavy stars. These critical phases of stellar evolution are normally hidden from the view, because massive protostars are deeply embedded in their native clouds of dust and gas, impenetrable barriers to observations at all but the longest wavelengths. In particular, no visual or infrared observations have yet "caught" nascent heavy stars in the act and little is therefore known so far about the related processes. Profiting from the cloud-ripping effect of strong stellar winds from adjacent, hot stars in a young stellar cluster at the center of the NGC 3603 complex, several objects located near a giant molecular cloud were found to be bona-fide massive protostars, only about 100,000 years old and still growing. Three of these objects, designated IRS 9A-C, could be studied in more detail. They are very luminous (IRS 9A is about 100,000 times intrinsically brighter than the Sun), massive (more than 10 times the mass of the Sun) and hot (about 20,000 degrees). They are surrounded by relative cold dust (about 0°C), probably partly arranged in disks around these very young objects. Two possible scenarios for the formation of massive stars are currently proposed, by accretion of large amounts of circumstellar material or by collision (coalescence) of protostars of intermediate masses. The new observations favour accretion, i.e. the same process that is active during the formation of stars of smaller masses.
eso0316 — Science Release
Flattest Star Ever Seen
11 June 2003: To a first approximation, planets and stars are round. Think of the Earth we live on. Think of the Sun, the nearest star, and how it looks in the sky. But if you think more about it, you realize that this is not completely true. Due to its daily rotation, the solid Earth is slightly flattened ("oblate") - its equatorial radius is some 21 km (0.3%) larger than the polar one. Stars are enormous gaseous spheres and some of them are known to rotate quite fast, much faster than the Earth. This would obviously cause such stars to become flattened. But how flat? Recent observations with the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory have allowed a group of astronomers [1] to obtain by far the most detailed view of the general shape of a fast-spinning hot star, Achernar (Alpha Eridani) , the brightest in the southern constellation Eridanus (The River). They find that Achernar is much flatter than expected - its equatorial radius is more than 50% larger than the polar one! In other words, this star is shaped very much like the well-known spinning-top toy, so popular among young children. The high degree of flattening measured for Achernar - a first in observational astrophysics - now poses an unprecedented challenge for theoretical astrophysics . The effect cannot be reproduced by common models of stellar interiors unless certain phenomena are incorporated, e.g. meridional circulation on the surface ("north-south streams") and non-uniform rotation at different depths inside the star. As this example shows, interferometric techniques will ultimately provide very detailed information about the shapes, surface conditions and interior structure of stars.
eso0315 — Science Release
One Thousand "Wonderful" Stars Discovered in Centaurus A
10 June 2003: An international team led by ESO astronomer Marina Rejkuba [1] has discovered more than 1000 luminous red variable stars in the nearby elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128). Brightness changes and periods of these stars were measured accurately and reveal that they are mostly cool long-period variable stars of the so-called "Mira-type." The observed variability is caused by stellar pulsation. This is the first time a detailed census of variable stars has been accomplished for a galaxy outside the Local Group of Galaxies (of which the Milky Way galaxy in which we live is a member). It also opens an entirely new window towards the detailed study of stellar content and evolution of giant elliptical galaxies . These massive objects are presumed to play a major role in the gravitational assembly of galaxy clusters in the Universe (especially during the early phases). This unprecedented research project is based on near-infrared observations obtained over more than three years with the ISAAC multi-mode instrument at the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory.
eso0314 — Science Release
CFHT and VLT Identify Extremely Remote Galaxy
28 May 2003: With improved telescopes and instruments, observations of extremely remote and faint galaxies have become possible that were until recently astronomers' dreams. One such object was found by a team of astronomers [2] with a wide-field camera installed at the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope at Mauna Kea (Hawaii, USA) during a search for extremely distant galaxies. Designated "z6VDF J022803-041618" , it was detected because of its unusual colour , being visible only on images obtained through a special optical filter isolating light in a narrow near-infrared band. A follow-up spectrum of this object with the FORS2 multi-mode instrument at the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) confirmed that it is a very distant galaxy (the redshift is 6.17 [3]). It is seen as it was when the Universe was only about 900 million years old. z6VDF J022803-041618 is one of the most distant galaxies for which spectra have been obtained so far. Interestingly, it was discovered because of the light emitted by its massive stars and not, as originally expected, from emission by hydrogen gas.
eso0313 — Organisation Release
Sharper and Deeper Views with MACAO-VLTI
13 May 2003: On April 18, 2003, a team of engineers from ESO celebrated the successful accomplishment of "First Light" for the MACAO-VLTI Adaptive Optics facility on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory (Chile). This is the second Adaptive Optics (AO) system put into operation at this observatory, following the NACO facility. The achievable image sharpness of a ground-based telescope is normally limited by the effect of atmospheric turbulence. However, with Adaptive Optics (AO) techniques, this major drawback can be overcome so that the telescope produces images that are as sharp as theoretically possible, i.e., as if they were taken from space. The acronym "MACAO" stands for "Multi Application Curvature Adaptive Optics" which refers to the particular way optical corrections are made which "eliminate" the blurring effect of atmospheric turbulence. The MACAO-VLTI facility was developed at ESO. It is a highly complex system of which four, one for each 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescope, will be installed below the telescopes (in the Coudé rooms). These systems correct the distortions of the light beams from the large telescopes (induced by the atmospheric turbulence) before they are directed towards the common focus at the VLT Interferometer (VLTI). The installation of the four MACAO-VLTI units of which the first one is now in place, will amount to nothing less than a revolution in VLT interferometry. An enormous gain in efficiency will result, because of the associated 100-fold gain in sensitivity of the VLTI. Put in simple words, with MACAO-VLTI it will become possible to observe celestial objects 100 times fainter than now . Soon the astronomers will be thus able to obtain interference fringes with the VLTI of a large number of objects hitherto out of reach with this powerful observing technique, e.g. external galaxies. The ensuing high-resolution images and spectra will open entirely new perspectives in extragalactic research and also in the studies of many faint objects in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. During the present period, the first of the four MACAO-VLTI facilties was installed, integrated and tested by means of a series of observations. For these tests, an infrared camera was specially developed which allowed a detailed evaluation of the performance. It also provided some first, spectacular views of various celestial objects, some of which are shown here.
eso0312 — Organisation Release
A Solar Mini-Eclipse on May 7, 2003
2 May 2003: A solar mini-eclipse! On May 7, 2003, Mercury, the innermost planet in the solar system, will pass in front of the Sun and produce a solar eclipse. But this event will hardly be noticed. Mercury's small disk will indeed barely be bigger than the point of a pencil. Even the smallest sunspots on the solar surface are as big as the Earth and measure 10,000 km or more in diameter, while Mercury's equatorial diameter is only 4878 km. Bathed in intense sunlight, this small, hot planet moves around the Sun in an elliptical orbit at a mean distance of only 58 million km, much closer to the Sun than other inner planet, Venus (108 million km) and the Earth (150 million km). The disk of Mercury is very small and will be very difficult to see . A powerful telescope is needed to observe this event and to show clearly how Mercury moves across the solar disk. The disk of Mercury is indeed only 13 arcseconds across (while the solar disk measures about 1800 arcseconds). This corresponds to the size of a 1 EURO coin located at the top of the Eiffel Tower as seen from the ground. Therefore, Mercury will only block 1/20,000th of the Sun's light.
eso0311 — Science Release
Glowing Hot Transiting Exoplanet Discovered
22 April 2003: More than 100 exoplanets in orbit around stars other than the Sun have been found so far. But while their orbital periods and distances from their central stars are well known, their true masses cannot be determined with certainty, only lower limits. This fundamental limitation is inherent in the common observational method to discover exoplanets - the measurements of small and regular changes in the central star's velocity, caused by the planet's gravitational pull as it orbits the star. However, in two cases so far, it has been found that the exoplanet's orbit happens to be positioned in such a way that the planet moves in front of the stellar disk, as seen from the Earth. This "transit" event causes a small and temporary dip in the star's brightness, as the planet covers a small part of its surface, which can be observed. The additional knowledge of the spatial orientation of the planetary orbit then permits a direct determination of the planet's true mass. Now, a group of German astronomers [1] have found a third star in which a planet, somewhat larger than Jupiter, but only half as massive, moves in front of the central star every 28.5 hours . The crucial observation of this solar-type star, designated OGLE-TR-3 [2] was made with the high-dispersion UVES spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). It is the exoplanet with the shortest period found so far and it is very close to the star, only 3.5 million km away. The hemisphere that faces the star must be extremely hot, about 2000 °C and the planet is obviously losing its atmosphere at high rate.
eso0310 — Science Release
Really Hot Stars
9 April 2003: Quite a few of the most beautiful objects in the Universe are still shrouded in mystery. Even though most of the nebulae of gas and dust in our vicinity are now rather well understood, there are some which continue to puzzle astronomers. This is the case of a small number of unusual nebulae that appear to be the subject of strong heating - in astronomical terminology, they present an amazingly "high degree of excitation." This is because they contain significant amounts of ions, i.e., atoms that have lost one or more of their electrons. Depending on the atoms involved and the number of electrons lost, this process bears witness to the strength of the radiation or to the impact of energetic particles. But what are the sources of that excitation? Could it be energetic stars or perhaps some kind of exotic objects inside these nebulae? How do these peculiar objects fit into the current picture of universal evolution? New observations of a number of such unusual nebulae have recently been obtained with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). In a dedicated search for the origin of their individual characteristics, a team of astronomers - mostly from the Institute of Astrophysics & Geophysics in Liège (Belgium) [1] - have secured the first detailed, highly revealing images of four highly ionized nebulae in the Magellanic Clouds, two small satellite galaxies of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, only a few hundred thousand light-years away. In three nebulae, they succeeded in identifying the sources of energetic radiation and to eludicate their exceptional properties: some of the hottest, most massive stars ever seen, some of which are double. With masses of more than 20 times that of the Sun and surface temperatures above 90 000 degrees, these stars are truly extreme.
eso0309 — Organisation Release
"Physics and Life" for Europe's Science Teachers
2 April 2003: What do you know about modern science? Was your school science teacher inspiring and enthusiastic? Or was physics class a good time to take a nap? Unfortunately, many young Europeans don't have the fondest memories of science in school, and the result is a widespread disinterest and lack of understanding of science among adults. This has become a real problem - especially at a time when science is having a growing impact on our daily lives, and when society needs more scientists than ever! What can be done? Some of Europe's leading research organisations, scientists and teachers have put their heads together and come up with a unique approach called "Physics on Stage" . This will be the third year that these institutes, with substantial support from the European Commission, are running this project - attacking the problem at its roots.
eso0308 — Organisation Release
"First Light" for HARPS at La Silla
27 March 2003: The initial commissioning period of the new HARPS spectrograph (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) of the 3.6-m telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory has been successfully accomplished in the period February 11 - 27, 2003. This new instrument is optimized to detect planets in orbit around other stars ("exoplanets") by means of accurate (radial) velocity measurements with an unequalled precision of 1 meter per second . This high sensitivity makes it possible to detect variations in the motion of a star at this level, caused by the gravitational pull of one or more orbiting planets, even relatively small ones. "First Light" occurred on February 11, 2003, during the first night of tests. The instrument worked flawlessly and was fine-tuned during subsequent nights, achieving the predicted performance already during this first test run. The measurement of accurate stellar radial velocities is a very efficient way to search for planets around other stars. More than one hundred extrasolar planets have so far been detected , providing an increasingly clear picture of a great diversity of exoplanetary system. However, current technical limitations have so far prevented the discovery around solar-type stars of exoplanets that are much less massive than Saturn, the second-largest planet in the solar system. HARPS will break through this barrier and will carry this fundamental exploration towards detection of exoplanets with masses like Uranus and Neptune. Moreover, in the case of low-mass stars - like Proxima Centauri - HARPS will have the unique capability to detect big "telluric" planets with only a few times the mass of the Earth. The HARPS instrument is being offered to the research community in the ESO member countries, already from October 2003.
eso0307 — Science Release
A Family Portrait of the Alpha Centauri System
15 March 2003: Observations with the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile) have provided the first-ever direct determination of the angular sizes of the disks of the solar-type stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. As the two largest members of this triple stellar system that also includes the much smaller Proxima Centauri, they are the Sun's nearest neighbours in space at a distance of just over 4 light-years. Together with photometric and asteroseismic observations, this fundamental measurement with the VLTI has lead to a complete characterization of Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B - they are now the "best known" stars. This has also allowed a unique and very detailed comparison between "real nature" and current stellar theory for solar-type stars. There is clearly very good agreement, indicating that the structure and evolution of stars like our Sun are well understood. The new observations of the nearest stars have therefore contributed to raise the astronomers' confidence in their solar models as well. We can now be more sure about the conditions inside the Sun, our central energy source, and also about the way it will change during the next hundreds of millions of years.
eso0306 — Organisation Release
ESO and NSF Sign Agreement on ALMA
25 February 2003: On February 25, 2003, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) are signing a historic agreement to construct and operate the world's largest and most powerful radio telescope, operating at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelength [1]. The Director General of ESO, Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, and the Director of the NSF, Dr. Rita Colwell, act for their respective organizations. Known as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the future facility will encompass sixty-four interconnected 12-meter antennae at a unique, high-altitude site at Chajnantor in the Atacama region of northern Chile. ALMA is a joint project between Europe and North America. In Europe, ESO is leading on behalf of its ten member countries and Spain. In North America, the NSF also acts for the National Research Council of Canada and executes the project through the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) operated by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI). The conclusion of the ESO-NSF Agreement now gives the final green light for the ALMA project. The total cost of approximately 650 million Euro (or US Dollars) is shared equally between the two partners.
eso0305 — Science Release
Distant World in Peril Discovered from La Silla
22 January 2003: When, in a distant future, the Sun begins to expand and evolves into a "giant" star, the surface temperature on the Earth will rise dramatically and our home planet will eventually be incinerated by that central body. Fortunately for us, this dramatic event is several billion years away. However, that sad fate will befall another planet, just discovered in orbit about the giant star HD 47536, already within a few tens of millions of years. At a distance of nearly 400 light-years from us, it is the second-remotest planetary system discovered to date [1]. This is an interesting side-result of a major research project, now carried out by a European-Brazilian team of astronomers [2]. In the course of a three-year spectroscopic survey, they have observed about 80 giant stars in the southern sky with the advanced FEROS spectrograph on the 1.52-m telescope installed at the ESO La Silla Observatory (Chile). It is one of these stars that has just been found to host a giant planet. This is only the fourth such case known and with a diameter of about 33 million km (or 23.5 times that of our Sun), HD 47536 is by far the largest of those giant stars [1]. The distance of the planet from the star is still of the order of 300 million km (or twice the distance of the Earth from the Sun), a safe margin now, but this will not always be so. The orbital period is 712 days, i.e., somewhat less than two Earth years, and the planet's mass is 5 - 10 times that of Jupiter. The presence of exoplanets in orbit around giant stars, some of which will eventually perish into their central star (be "cannibalized"), provides a possible explanation of the anomalous abundance of certain chemical elements that is observed in the atmospheres of some stars. This interesting discovery bodes well for coming observations of exoplanetary systems with new, more powerful instruments, like HARPS to be installed next year at the ESO 3.6-m telescope on La Silla, and also the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) now being commissioned at Paranal.
eso0304 — Science Release
Isolated Star-Forming Cloud Discovered in Intracluster Space
16 January 2003: At a distance of some 50 million light-years, the Virgo Cluster is the nearest galaxy cluster. It is located in the zodiacal constellation of the same name (The Virgin) and is a large and dense assembly of hundreds of galaxies. The "intracluster" space between the Virgo galaxies is permeated by hot X-ray emitting gas and, as has become clear recently, by a sparse "intracluster population of stars". So far, stars have been observed to form in the luminous parts of galaxies. The most massive young stars are often visible indirectly by the strong emission from surrounding cocoons of hot gas, which is heated by the intense radiation from the embedded stars. These "HII regions" (pronounced "Eitch-Two" and so named because of their content of ionized hydrogen) may be very bright and they often trace the beautiful spiral arms seen in disk galaxies like our own Milky Way. New observations by the Japanese 8-m Subaru telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) have now shown that massive stars can also form in isolation, far from the luminous parts of galaxies [1]. During a most productive co-operation between astronomers working at these two world-class telescopes, a compact HII region has been discovered at the very boundary between the outer halo of a Virgo cluster galaxy and Virgo intracluster space. This cloud is illuminated and heated by a few hot and massive young stars. The estimated total mass of the stars in the cloud is only a few hundred times that of the Sun. Such an object is rare at the present epoch. However, there may have been more in the past, at which time they were perhaps responsible for the formation of a fraction of the intracluster stellar population in clusters of galaxies. Massive stars in such isolated HII regions will explode as supernovae at the end of their short lives, and enrich the intracluster medium with heavy elements. Observations of two other Virgo cluster galaxies, Messier 86 and Messier 84, indicate the presence of other isolated HII regions, thus suggesting that isolated star formation may occur more generally in galaxies. If so, this process may provide a natural explanation to the current riddle why some young stars are found high up in the halo of our own Milky Way galaxy, far from the star-forming clouds in the main plane.
eso0303 — Science Release
Discovery of Nearest Known Brown Dwarf
13 January 2003: A team of European astronomers [1], [2] has discovered a Brown Dwarf object (a 'failed' star) less than 12 light-years from the Sun. It is the nearest yet known. Now designated Epsilon Indi B, it is a companion to a well-known bright star in the southern sky, Epsilon Indi (now "Epsilon Indi A"), previously thought to be single. The binary system is one of the twenty nearest stellar systems to the Sun. The brown dwarf was discovered from the comparatively rapid motion across the sky which it shares with its brighter companion : the pair move a full lunar diameter in less than 400 years. It was first identified using digitised archival photographic plates from the SuperCOSMOS Sky Surveys (SSS) and confirmed using data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Follow-up observations with the near-infrared sensitive SOFI instrument on the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory confirmed its nature and has allowed measurements of its physical properties. Epsilon Indi B has a mass just 45 times that of Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System, and a surface temperature of only 1000 °C. It belongs to the so-called 'T dwarf' category of objects which straddle the domain between stars and giant planets. Epsilon Indi B is the nearest and brightest T dwarf known. Future studies of the new object promise to provide astronomers with important new clues as to the formation and evolution of these exotic celestial bodies, at the same time yielding interesting insights into the border zone between planets and stars.
eso0302 — Photo Release
Deepest Wide-Field Colour Image in the Southern Sky
10 January 2003: The combined efforts of three European teams of astronomers, targeting the same sky field in the southern constellation Fornax (The Oven) have enabled them to construct a very deep, true-colour image - opening an exceptionally clear view towards the distant universe. The image ( PR Photo 02a/03 ) covers an area somewhat larger than the full moon. It displays more than 100,000 galaxies, several thousand stars and hundreds of quasars. It is based on images with a total exposure time of nearly 50 hours, collected under good observing conditions with the Wide Field Imager (WFI) on the MPG/ESO 2.2m telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory (Chile) - many of them extracted from the ESO Science Data Archive.
eso0301 — Organisation Release
ESO PR Highlights in 2002
7 January 2003: The past year was marked by ESOs 40th anniversary and the associated events. On this occasion various outreach material was prepared, notably a 50-min video film about ESO's past, present and future. A major planetarium show about ESO and modern astronomy is now running at many planetaria in Europe.
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