The astronomy glossary aims to help you understand some of the terms used in this website. It is by no means a comprehensive astronomy dictionary.
The Andromeda Galaxy or MESSIER 31 (M31) is the closest large galaxy to the MILKY WAY. It is 2.5 million LIGHT YEARS away and gets its name from the CONSTELLATION in which it appears in our night sky (see picture below). The star Alpheratz is also used to form the square shape in the constellation Pegasus, even though it is now assigned exclusively to Andromeda and not Pegasus.
The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the brightest MESSIER objects with an apparent MAGNITUDE of 3.4 and is the farthest object that can be seen with the unaided eye. We only see the very bright central region, if we could see the whole of the galaxy it would stretch 6 full Moon widths across the sky (3 degrees).
It is a spiral galaxy 260,000 LIGHT YEARS in diameter containing 1 trillion stars so over twice the size of our own Milky Way galaxy. It is the most massive of the galaxies in the LOCAL CLUSTER which contains the MILKY WAY, the Triangulum galaxy (M33) and 44 other smaller galaxies. It has a double nucleus with at least one supermassive BLACK HOLE hidden at its core. There are at least 450 GLOBULAR CLUSTERS orbiting around the galaxy and some of these are the most densely populated globulars ever seen.
The Andromeda Galaxy is approaching the Milky Way at approximately 100-140 km/s and in about 3.75 billion years the galaxies will collide, merging and evolving into a new type of galaxy, an ELLIPTICAL GALAXY or a LARGE DISC GALAXY.
Finding the Andromeda Galaxy
When looking up at the night sky, stars are often grouped into recognised patterns. These recognised patterns may be a group of the brighter stars within a larger constellation or may indeed form a pattern which includes more than one constellation. As a result, asterisms are visually obvious collections of stars and the lines used to mentally connect them. Unlike constellations which are officially recognised areas of the sky, asterisms do not have officially determined boundaries and are therefore a more general concept which may refer to any identified pattern of stars.
A popularly recognised asterism is the Plough (Saucepan or Big Dipper) within the International Astronomical Union's officially rcognised constellation Ursa Major. Other popular asterisms include the Summer Triangle and the Winter Triangle. The Summer Triangle is made from the brightest stars in the constellations of Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila. The stars are Vega, Deneb and Altair. The Winter Triangle joins the stars Betelgeuse in Orion, Procyon in Canis Minor and Sirius in Canis Major.
Asteroid 3200 Phaethon was discovered in October 1983. This unusual Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) may be an extinct comet. It measures 5.1 Km in diameter and its orbit crosses the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury. It was the first asteroid to be discovered by a spacecraft. Its orbit is tilted at an angle of 22.2 degrees to the ECLIPTIC. It also has a highly elongated orbit; with an ECCENTRICITY of 0.88, which is more like a comet than an asteroid.
Phaethon's (pronounced FAY-a-thon) most remarkable distinction is that it approaches the Sun closer than any other numbered asteroid and comes even closer to the Sun than Mercury; it gets within 20.9 million km [13 million miles]. The surface temperature at its closest (perihelion) could reach approximately 1025 Kelvin. This is why it was named after the Greek myth of Phaëton, son of the Sun god Helios. As Phaethon approaches the Sun the dust is literally cooked off its surface. It then makes its way back to far beyond the orbit of Mars some 223 million miles from the Sun (359 million Km) in just 262 days. This far away from the Sun Phaethon cools down to very low temperatures. This constant periodical cooling and heating cycle cracks its mineralogical surface into small dusty particles. Each December, when Earth passes close to the orbit of Phaethon, the small grains swept from Phaethon by the radiation pressure (of sunlight) enter our atmosphere as the GEMINIDS METEOR SHOWER.
The Geminids meteor shower is observed between the 4th-17th December (maximum is usually December 14th). Along with the Quadrantids, observed between 1st-6th January, they are the only meteor showers originating from an asteroid rather than a comet. It will approach relatively close to the Earth on December 14, 2093, passing within 0.0198 AU (Astronomical Units).
3200 Phaethon is a rocky object with a strange blue hue (artist impression).
Astronomical twilight is defined to begin in the morning, and to end in the evening when the centre of the Sun is geometrically 18 degrees below the horizon. From the end of astronomical twilight in the evening to the beginning of astronomical twilight in the morning, the sky (away from urban light pollution) is dark enough for all astronomical observations. Most casual observers would consider the entire sky fully dark even when astronomical twilight is just beginning in the evening or just ending in the morning, and astronomers can easily make observations of point sources such as stars, but faint diffuse items such as nebulae and galaxies can be properly observed only beyond the limit of astronomical twilight. In some places, especially those with sky glow, astronomical twilight may be almost indistinguishable from night.
It takes 29.53 days for one lunation i.e. the time taken to go from, for example, New Moon back to New Moon. There are 365.24 days in a year so there are usually 12.37 lunations in one year which equates to roughly 11 days more than the number of days in 12 lunar cycles. The extra days accumulate so every 2-3 years there is an 'extra' 13th full moon. This extra full moon means that one of the seasons ends up having 4 full moons and not 3. Originally the 3rd full moon in the season with 4 full moons was called a Blue Moon. In 1946 an article was printed which misinterpreted this traditional definition; it stated that if there is a second full moon in one month then this second full moon is called a Blue Moon. This misinterpretation seems to have been widely adopted as a current description.
The Moon of course is not blue. This would be a rare event indeed and only occurs in certain atmospheric conditions; e.g., when there are volcanic eruptions or when exceptionally large fires leave particles in the atmosphere. The image you see here has been taken using a blue filter.
Comets are cosmic snowballs or snowy dirt balls. They are mostly made up of ices mixed with smaller amounts of dust and rock. Most comets are no larger than a few kilometres across. The main body of the comet is called the nucleus, and it can contain water, methane, nitrogen and other ices. Comets orbit the Sun and when they come closer to it they begin to heat up and release gases in a process called outgassing. This produces a visible atmosphere around the nucleus of the comet called a coma. This can end up being 15 times the diameter of the Earth! The solar wind blows the gas and dust away from the comet creating a pair of tails that can be millions of miles long. We usually see the dust tail when we look at comets from Earth. Recent evidence has shown there is a third tail.
Comets usually have highly eccentric elliptical orbits, and they have a wide range of orbital periods, ranging from several years to potentially several millions of years. Short-period comets originate in the Kuiper belt or its associated scattered disc, which lie beyond the orbit of Neptune. Long-period comets are thought to originate in the Oort cloud, a spherical cloud of icy bodies extending from outside the Kuiper belt to halfway to the nearest star.
The Material that streams away from the comet is left in its orbital path and if Earth passes through this debris trail then we see a meteor shower or shooting stars.
In the past, comets were named for their discoverers, such as Comet Halley for Sir Edmond Halley. In modern times, comet names are governed by rules set forth by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). A comet is given an official designation, and can also be identified by the last names of up to three independent discoverers.
Here’s how it works. Once a comet has been confirmed, the following naming rules are followed. First, if the comet is a periodic comet, then it is indicated with a P/ followed by the year of its discovery, a letter indicating the half-month in which it was discovered, followed by a number indicating its order of discovery. So, for example, the second periodic comet found in the first half of January, 2015 would be called P/2015 A2.
A non-periodic comet would be indicated with a C/ followed by the year of its discovery, a letter indicating the half-month in which it was discovered, followed by a number indicating its order of discovery.
The periodic Comet Halley (1P/Halley) is the most famous in history. It returns to the inner solar system once every 76 years. Other well-known periodic comets include 2P/Encke, which appears every 3.3 years and 9P/Tempel (Tempel 2), which was visited by the Deep Impact and Stardust probes, and comes closest to the Sun every 5.5 years.
In this example conjunction is the position of the outer planet (in orange) in relation to the Earth when the outer planet is at the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth. At this point in the orbits of the 2 bodies the outer planet is the furthest it will be from the Earth. However because of the elliptical nature of planetary orbits the actual distance between the Earth and the outer planet will be different at each conjunction.
The diagram is simplified to show opposition and conjunction. The elliptical orbits are very exagerated.
A constellation is a group of stars that forms an imaginary outline or meaningful pattern on the CELESTIAL SPHERE. Imagine the night sky as a huge dot to dot puzzle. If you joined some of the stars by imaginary lines you would make patterns.
In ancient times poets, farmers and astronomers began to pick out patterns in the stars and named them after heroes and fabled animals. In Ptolemy's time 48 constellations were recognised by the Eastern Mediteraneans and many mythological stories were associated with them. Nowadays because we have included the whole of the celestial sphere and not just the ones that Ptolemy could see, the tally has gone up to 88.
The origins of some constellations extend back to prehistory, while others have changed. While the patterns of old seem quite specific to the brightest stars, the constellations of today make up a block of sky encompassing not only the recognised pattern of stars but all the stars within that block which are not necessarily visible to the unaided eye. Each block forms a border with another block much like the county boundaries in the UK. These specific boundaries were put in place by the International Astronomical Union in 1922 and the 88 constellations have remained since then.
We still recognise the patterns that the brighter stars make within the whole of the constellation but assigning a region of sky to one constellation has helped us to locate specific deep sky objects. The yellow dashed line marks the constellation boundaries.
There are three different types of double stars:
Optical doubles are unrelated stars that appear close together through chance alignment with Earth. An example of an optical double are the two stars Mizar and Alcor in the constellation Ursa Major. Look at the tail of the bear, Mizar and Alcor are the second stars in from the tip of the tail (see constellation).
Visual binaries are in mutual orbit and gravitationally bound to each other. They are seen as one star with the unaided eye but can be resolved into two with a telescope.
Non-visual binaries cannot be resolved through a telescope but they can be split into their respective components by spectroscopy (spectroscopic binaries), or more esoteric means, such as occultation (eclipsing binaries), or anomalies in proper motion (astrometric binaries).
Multiple star systems also exist but these are more complex than binary stars.
Improvements in telescopes can shift previously non-visual binaries into visual binaries, as happened with Polaris A in 2006. It is only the inability to telescopically observe two separate stars that distinguish non-visual and visual binaries.
An eclipse occurs when one celestial object moves into the shadow of another celestial object along the line of sight of an observer. The observer sees either a total eclipse where the first body is completely obscured or a partial eclipse when only a portion of the first body is obscured. Examples of eclipses include a Lunar eclipse and a Solar Eclipse. Satellites of planets can also eclipse each other as they orbit around their parent planet.
A globular cluster is a nearly symetrical, spherical collection of hundreds of thousands of very old stars held tightly together by gravity. The stars are probably some of the first stars that formed in our Milky Way galaxy. The highest concentration of stars is in the central region making it look like a glowing almost 3 dimensional ball through a telescope.
The name is derived from the Latin globulus meaning a small sphere and there are currently about 158 known globular clusters in the Milky Way. In larger galaxies there may be many more. In fact every galaxy of sufficient mass has an associated group of globular clusters.
Several globular clusters with extremely massive cores may even have a black hole lurking at their centre but there is no scientific evidence to prove this yet.
Jupiter's most famous feature is its Great Red Spot (GRS). The spot was first seen by the English astronomer Robert Hooke in 1664. This means that it has been raging for at least 349 years. In fact nobody knows how long it has been active. It is still huge but seems to be shrinking.
It was named the Great Red Spot around 1878 when it turned a vivid brick red, but more recently it has faded to a much less conspicuous pale tan. This huge, long-lived storm is spinning like a hurricane. However, unlike hurricanes on Earth, the GRS rotates in an anticlockwise direction in Jupiter's southern hemisphere, showing that it is a high-pressure system. In fact the storm gets weaker and stronger over time and the higher the pressure the redder is the spot.
Recent observations show that the storm seems to be coming apart, with streamers “peeling off” the main spot as often as every week. Some reports have called this process “unraveling” although that isn’t really the best description. Could the Great Red Spot actually be self-destructing? Is it nearing its end?
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is perhaps the most iconic feature of any planet in our Solar System. It’s instantly recognizable, and the massive cyclone has been swirling for so long that we’ve taken for granted that it’ll always be there. Recent observations have shown that, unfortunately, that’s not the case. The storm is dying — the latest data from the Juno spacecraft suggests it might actually be gone within our lifetimes — and a new research paper by scientists at NASA suggests that it’s actually changed in both shape and color as it enters its twilight years.
Juno’s latest images have revealed some surprising changes to the storm, which is now smaller in diameter than has ever before been observed (some 16,000 km long compared to around 48,000 km when it was first viewed). Its swirling winds are reaching higher into the planet’s atmosphere than before, stretching the storm taller as they swirl upward. At the same time, its iconic crimson hue is becoming more orange, likely as a result of the highest gasses being exposed to ultraviolet radiation.
The image courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona shows a true-color image of Jupiter.
Magnitude is a measure of how bright a celestial object looks. Those objects that can be seen with the naked eye are ranked in 6 magnitudes from first to sixth magnitude. First magnitude is the brightest and 6th magnitude the faintest, which always seems a little odd! Anyway a sixth magnitude object is exactly 100 times less bright than a first magnitude object. This means that the difference between a first and second magnitude object is approximately 2.51 times. To get the difference between a first and second magnitude object all you do is multiply 2.51 x 2.51 = 6.3.This means that a third magnitude object is about 6.3 times less bright than a first magnitude object.
To make things a little more complicated, an object 2.51 times brighter than magnitude 1 becomes magnitude 0. An object 6.3 times brighter than magnitude 1 becomes magnitude -1.
Sirius is the brightest STAR in the sky and has a magnitude of -1.44. The full Moon has a magnitude of -12.7 and the Sun has a magnitude of -26.7.
Charles Messier was an 18th Century French astronomer. In particular he hunted for comets. He is noted for his catalogue of nebulae and star clusters called the Catalogue des Nébuleuses et des Amas d'Étoiles ("Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters") first published in 1774.
Today the catalogue is known as the 'Catalogue of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters.' The reason why he did not mention galaxies is because originally all the celestial objects with a nebulous appearance were assumed to be part of the Milky Way Galaxy and not galaxies in their own right. He drew up the catalogue with his friend and assistant Pierre Méchain to distinguish the permanent visually diffuse objects from the transient ones such as comets. This avoided wasting time sorting out comets from the permanent “fuzzy objects” and helped to prevent fellow comet hunters making mistakes.
The first version of Messier's catalogue contained 45 objects. In addition to his own discoveries, this version included objects previously observed by other astronomers, with only 17 of the 45 objects being those observed by Messier himself. By 1780 the catalogue had increased to 80 objects. The final version of the catalogue containing 103 objects was published in 1781. However, due to what was thought for a long time to be the incorrect addition of Messier 102, the total number remained 102. Today there are 110 Messier objects catalogued with astronomers other than Messier, using side notes in Messier's texts, adding to those already catalogued.
Meteor showers are caused by streams of dust and rock called meteoroids. This debris is usually left behind by comets as they orbit the Sun. When a comet approaches the Sun it will begin to vaporise leaving behind a meteoroid stream also known as a dust trail. As Earth passes through this dust trail every year at the same time, meteoroids will enter the Earth's atmosphere and "burn up" leaving a bright visible streak called a meteor. If meteors occur only seconds or minutes apart then it is known as a meteor shower and it takes its name from the constellation from which the shower appears to originate (the radiant point). For example the Perseids appears to originate in the constellation Perseus and the Taurids appears to originate from the constellation Taurus.
Most meteoroids that cause meteors are the size of a pebble. Their bright streaks become visible between 40 and 75 miles (65-120 km) above the Earth's atmosphere and they disintegrate at altitudes of around 30-60 miles (50-95 km). At speeds of up to 26 miles per second (42 km/s) they are visible for just fractions of a second. Any large meteoroids that survive and reach the surface of Earth are called meteorites.
Meteoroids vary in size from a dust particle to a small boulder. The number of meteoroids appears inversely proportional to their size for instance there are more meteoroids the size of a dust particle than the size of a grain of sand and there are more meteoroids the size of a grain of sand than the size of a pebble etc. Millions of meteors "burn up" in the Earth's atmosphere every day but most of them are so small that they are invisible. Also many enter the atmosphere during the day.
The reason why meteors glow as they pass through the atmosphere is not because of friction. As the meteoroid leaves the vacuum of space and enters the Earth's atmosphere at high speed there is a rapid compression of the air in front of it, which becomes superheated so much so that it ionises. This is what causes the glowing trail behind the meteor. The meteor itself disintegrates at such a high temperature, which can reach 1650 C.
An occultation is an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer. The hidden object is either smaller or appears smaller to the observer than the object passing in front of it. In the example shown here there is an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon.
A transit is an astronomical event that occurs when, as seen from an observers viewpoint, one celestial body appears to move across the face of another celestial body, hiding a small part of it. Examples of this would be Venus crossing the face of the Sun, satellites crossing the face of the planet that they are orbiting (see picture of Io transiting across the face of Jupiter).
Star clusters form from the same molecular cloud. An open cluster is one that can contain from a few dozen to a few thousand stars all of similar ages. They are much more loosly bound by gravity than a globular cluster and also generally contain younger, hot stars. Because they are more loosely bound they can become disrupted by passing objects such as other clusters or clouds of gas and stars can be lost from the cluster.
Open clusters are commonly found in the disk of a galaxy but only in spiral or irregular galaxies where active star formation is still ongoing. They generally survive for a few hundred million years, with the most massive ones surviving for a few billion years.
The Pleiades or the Seven Sisters in the constellation Taurus is an example of an open cluster. It contains a group of newly formed B-type stars. It is 115 million years old and is easily seen with the unaided eye. when you start to see Pleiades rising over the eastern horizon before midnight then you know the end of summer is nigh and Autumn is on its way. The brightest stars have a surface temperature of 30,000 Kelvin, much hotter than the surface of our Sun which is about 6,000 Kelvin.
Other examples of Open Clusters include the Double Cluster in Perseus and the Coma Star Cluster in Coma Berenices (also known as Melotte 111). More than 1,100 open clusters have been discovered within the Milky Way Galaxy, and many more are thought to exist.
In this example opposition is the time when a celestial body is on the opposite side of the Earth to the Sun. At this point in the orbits of the 2 bodies the outer planet (shown in orange) is the closest it will be to the Earth. However because of the elliptical nature of planetary orbits the distance between the Earth and the outer planet will be different at each opposition.
The diagram is simplified to show opposition and conjunction. The elliptical orbits are very exagerated.
The Orion Nebula is also known as M42. The M refers to Charles Messier an 18th century French astronomer and comet hunter. He compiled a list of deep sky fuzzy looking objects so they would not be mistaken for comets. Not all Messier objects were actually discovered by Charles Messier himself.
Nebula (plural nebulae) is Latin for mist and they are vast areas of cloud and dust between the stars. The Orion Nebula is so huge it is visible to the naked eye even though it is 1,344 light years away. It appears to cover 1 degree of the sky, an area twice the size of the full Moon, it is actually 24 light years across. A light year is roughly equivalent to 9.5 million million Km! It is a region where new stars are formed. These new stars at the centre of the dust cloud light up the surrounding gas making it visible through a telescope.
The Orion Nebula is in the constellation of Orion, which is a very prominent constellation in the winter sky. The nebula is located in the "sword" of Orion which hangs below the 3 stars that depict his belt (see diagram on right)
One of the new stars at the centre of the Orion Nebula is Theta-1 Orionis. It is easy to understand why it is called the Trapezium because, through the telescope, you should see 4 prominent stars in the shape of a trapezium (see Diagram below).
This false colour mosaic was made by combining several exposures from the Hubble Space Telescope Image credit: NASA Picture of the day
The whole of the Moon is only ever half illuminated - the half that faces towards the Sun (inner part of the diagram). However, looking from Earth, we only see a portion of this illuminated face because as the moon orbits the Earth it changes position in space relative to the Sun and Earth. (outer part of the diagram).
New Moon is considered as the beginning of the cycle, hence the term New Moon. However, because the moon is between Earth and the Sun the Sun only illuminates the face that we do not see, the ‘Far Side of the Moon'. The face that we normally look at is in total darkness and therefore we cannot see it.
The next phase is a crescent Moon but because more and more of the illuminated face of the Moon will become visible to observers from Earth in the following days it is called a waxing crescent.
The next phase is called First Quarter. The reason why we call this phase of the moon first quarter is because it is one quarter of the way through the lunar cycle. The lunar cycle is the number of days it takes to go from one New Moon to the next and is 29.53 days. This is one lunation. First quarter is often referred to as half moon. This is because only half of the face of the moon that we see is lit by the Sun. Halfway through the lunar cycle is Full Moon when we can see the whole of the illuminated face because it is opposite the Sun with respect to the Earth.
As the illuminated face becomes less the Moon is said to be waning and when it has orbited three quarters of the way around the Earth it is said to be a Last (or Third) Quarter Moon. The next time the moon is a crescent it is a waning crescent and the edge that is illuminated is the opposite edge that is illuminated when it is a waxing crescent. Remembering this becomes easy by saying "if the Light is coming from the Left the Moon is getting Less."
The Ring Nebula (also known as M57), is a planetary nebula in the constellation of Lyra (the most notable star in Lyra is Vega). Planetary Nebulae are formed when some types of star die (stars that are between 0.8 and 8 solar masses). The remnants of our own Sun will end up becoming a planetary nebula with a white dwarf star at its centre. This will happen after it has reached the red giant phase of its life. The nebula comes from a shell of ionized gas which is expelled into the surrounding interstellar medium as it goes through its final death throes.
The rings of Saturn are made up of icy particles ranging in size from micrometres to metres. Almost entirely water ice, the particles are contaminated with some dust and other chemicals. Reflected sunlight from these particles, contribute a great deal to the brightness of Saturn as viewed from Earth and this brightness appears to change over time. This is due not only to the change in the distance from Earth to Saturn as both planets independently orbit the Sun, it is also due to the changing aspect of the rings (see diagram), which in turn depends on where Saturn is in its orbit around the Sun. The thickness of the ring system is estimated at only 10 metres deep.
The diagram shows the orbit of Saturn shown at two/three year intervals between the years 1993 and 2020 AD. The orbit of the Earth is seen close to the centre, marked at various dates by a blue-green globe (the orbits are not shown to scale). The dates in blue are the dates of Saturn's opposition to the Sun, i.e. when the planet is closest to the Earth and appears at its brightest for the year. The images in the grey circles show how the planet appears from the Earth (orientated with Celestial North at the top). The points of Saturn's perihelion (i.e. its closest point to the Sun) and aphelion (its most distant point from the Sun) are also marked. The constellation in which Saturn appears, as seen from the Earth, is shown in green. The First Point of Aries is the 'zero point' from which the longitudes of the planets are measured (diagram based on a graphic by space artist David A Hardy).
It takes 29.457 Earth years for Saturn to orbit the Sun. During this time we see the rings from different angles. Previously the South Pole of Saturn has appeared tilted towards Earth and we have been looking at the underside of the rings. When the rings start to slowly open up again we will begin to see the top side of the rings as the North Pole appears tilted in our direction. By the time Saturn has completed one orbit the ring cycle, from our point of view will start all over again.
Another ring around Saturn was discovered on 6th October 2009 using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which revealed an infrared glow thought to come from sun-warmed dust in a tenuous ring. The ring spans from 128 to 207 times the radius of Saturn - or further - and is 2.4 million kilometres deep. It is the largest planetary ring in the solar system but is quite diffuse making it very difficult to detect using visible light. The source of the ring's material seems to be Saturn's outer moon Phoebe, which orbits the planet at an average distance of 215 times the radius of Saturn. If space rock hits Phoebe the impact may generate the debris which has made the ring.
Diagram and caption courtesy of: http://www.nakedeyeplanets.com/saturn-orbit.htm
A transit is an astronomical event that occurs when, as seen from an observers viewpoint, one celestial body appears to move across the face of another celestial body, hiding a small part of it. Examples of this would be Venus or Mercury crossing the face of the Sun, satellites crossing the face of the planet that they are orbiting.
A shadow transit is when you see the shadow of the celestial object passing across the face of the larger celestial body. The image shows the triple shadow transit of Callisto, Io, and Europa on October 11-12, 2013. Callisto is at far left and Io is the upper of the pair at center. Notice the distorted shadow of Callisto. The shadow lies close to the edge of a Jupiter's globe, which curves sharply away from the observer.
Image by John Sussenbach (see image of the triple shadow transit of three moons of Jupiter in 2013).
If the larger celestial body hides a major part, or all of, the smaller celestial body (i.e from an observers point of view the smaller celestial body moves behind the larger body), then it is an occultation rather than a transit.
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