back to article Ding Dong, ALIENS CALLING

Sorry, sci-fi fans: pretty much anyone who's imagined what a near-light-speed spacecraft would look like has got it wrong, because they've forgotten its interaction with photons. Not only that, but according to a couple of scientists working for Raytheon, it doesn't matter whether Einstein's proposition that you'll never …

  1. Little Mouse

    A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

    You'd think they'd put a warning on them...

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Re: A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

      Methinks someone has been reading Randall Munroe's 'What If?'.

      edit - Here

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

        This explains some japanese comics.

      2. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        @Loyal Commenter - Re: A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

        Damn you beat me to the obligatory xkcd punch

    2. Fink-Nottle

      Re: A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

      In cricket, this eventuality is covered by the Duckworth-Lewis method.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      As all real Scientists know

      If it's on Arxiv, it probably could not make it through peer review at a Journal.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: As all real Scientists know

        If it's on Arxiv, it probably could not make it through peer review at a Journal.

        You completely misunderstand the nature of Arxiv (and vixra, for that matter), as well as peer review.

        And the incentives behind peer review.

        Go sit in a corner, dunderhead.

        (Damn, I'm too serious again. Time for "venerable ancient bum" icon).

    4. Primus Secundus Tertius

      Re: A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

      More likely is that the ship will hit a speck of galactic dust, perhaps one micron across. So 10**-18 cubic metres, or ca 10**-15 kg. The rest mass energy is therefore 90 joules, so its kinetic energy at relativistic speeds will be similar.

      Suppose there is one such dust grain per cubic metre. At the speed of light, each square metre of the ship will hit 3x10**8 such grains, releasing at least 2x10**10 joules.

      The ship will rapidly be reduced to galactic dust.

      1. MrXavia

        Re: A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

        Some combination of electromagnetic, electrostatic & plasma shields needed I suspect to capture/deflect the particles, plus probably a massive container full of water to absorb that gamma radiation.

        Its all just extreme engineering for near light speed travel...

    5. goldfish

      Re: A baseball can do 30 megatons of damage?

      I seem to recall reading, a large number of years ago, that there was a Project Daedelus proposed where we would head off at near-light speed to reach the stars.

      If we detected something ahead of us, the craft would send out a fine mist, which, travelling at just below the speed of light, would smithereenerize (is that a word?) anything in it's path.

      The craft would then sail serenely through the mist + pulverised remnants and carry on its way.

  2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    Isn't the idea of any kind of 'warp' propulsion that it moves a 'bubble' of spacetime rather than the contents, which effectively stay stationary. This is also known as 'frame-shifting'.

    This might be bad news for anything in the path of that bubble, which presumably would get either bumped to one side, or torn apart, but the whole notion of accelerating anything to near the speed of light as a means of moving it astronomical distances is obviously a non-starter.

    Relativity tells us that this would involve impractically (if not impossibly) vast amounts of energy for one, rising exponentially as you approach C. Your mass would increase accordingly, and time would slow down, which would be a definite problem if you wanted to go to another solar system and still stay in touch with your friends at home, who would all be long dead by the time you get there.

    So what these guys are saying, is that if you tried to use an impractical method of transportation, it would be impractical. Nice tautology there...

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      This is also known as 'frame-shifting'.

      This is also known as Harry Potter enabling.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        This is also known as Harry Potter enabling.

        Well, yes. Pretty much all SF non-local (inner-system) space travel involves a bunch of magical hand-waving rubbish. Oh, we have warp bubbles, y'see. And deflector shields. And the ship's hull is made of highly compressed fairies.

        This is so patently obvious to anyone with a glancing acquaintance with physics that I really am baffled by Chirgwin's "pretty much anyone who's imagined what a near-light-speed spacecraft would look like has got it wrong". I'm not saying there isn't new work in this paper, but the general ideas of high-energy collisions with interstellar matter and blue-shifted photons are pretty common, surely?

        I described both of them to my brother in an email many years ago when he was doing some research for an SF story - even did some back-of-the-envelope1 calculations. And I'm neither a physicist nor a spacecraft engineer. If those problems immediately occurred to me, it's vanishingly unlikely that they haven't occurred to a great many SF authors and readers. Who, presumably, ignored them or waved them away in order to get on with the story.

        1In those days, still a physical paper object you could jot numbers and equations down on, with a pen.2

        2In those days, a physical object you... ah, forget it.

    2. Tom 13

      @Loyal Commenter

      I much prefer the EE Doc Smith solution in Skylark*:

      "We're going faster than the speed of light!" says the scientist superhero.

      "Doesn't that violate Einstein's Law of Relativity?" asks the plucky sidekick who is there just to ask such questions.

      "Yes, but it's happening so Einstein was wrong. I'll figure it out later." answers the scientist.

      *Some liberties may have been taken in transcribing the dialogue of this interaction.

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: @Loyal Commenter

        The liberties you took are sheerly, starkly unthinkable, you zwilnik!

        Prepare to be shown the burned and pitted orifices of my twin DeLammeters!

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: @Loyal Commenter

          "zwilnik! DeLammeters!"

          Wrong universe. Unless you are flying Gay Deceiver.

          (A wrong author is less worse than wrong universe. At least that's true in my multiverse. :-p )

          1. MrDamage

            Gay Deceiver.

            I've heard of The Flying Nun, but I don't think I've heard of a flying catholic priest.

            I'll get my coat....

    3. Thasus


      I haven't read a sci fi book that relies on warp bubbles in.... ever. Most have either Generation ships, or some kind of lighthugger

      Generation ships trundling along between stars might be impractical but they do seem like the only option.

      Good to know if a ship is approaching us they'll be visible.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Warp

        "Good to know if a ship is approaching us they'll be visible."

        Would they, would they really? Articles like these fine hope to hostile invasions, but to presume you're enemy will be seen is generally a presumption the loser takes. In less than a hundred years it is only now that we can see most of Earth's deadliest lifeforms using technology. Encode an atom with a virus, send it across the galaxy, watch your enemy wither away. Galatic Bio-Weaponry, beautifully hideous...but effective.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Warp

          Encode an atom with a virus

          Er ... do what, now? How do you "encode an atom"? As what? "See, this helium atom is actually an encoded hydrogen! We added another proton and electron for redundancy."

          1. dan1980

            Re: Warp



            I was gong to respond to the comment but just didn't know where to start.

    4. dan1980

      @Loyal Commenter

      More like: physically impossible method of travel also impractical from an engineering and logistics standpoint.

      Not that trying to solve a mooted technical problem like this would be necessarily devoid of useful insight, just that one must frame such research carefully.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Star Trek is already around it.

    Deflector dish has that exact purpose, to push tiny weeny particles and fotons away from the front of the ship.

    The way out is there, altough it is not thoroughly explained how. What I mean is that this was already considered, and a sci-fi coherent answer devised.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Star Trek is already around it.

      Honorverse novels acknowledge this too, the main limit on missile range being that coasting along at .99c without a gravity wedge is a recipe for fried ... everything in fact.

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: Star Trek is already around it.

        I know many people knock the crap out the Honorverse, but those frikkin battle scenes are AWESOME!

    2. jphb

      Re: Star Trek is already around it.

      Odd that the Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi etc., etc., don't seem to need deflector dishes on their ships - ah, got it, Einstein wasn't a Klingon or Romulan etc., so presumably their physics is different.

    3. steeplejack

      Re: Star Trek is already around it.

      Although Charles Hall tells of the fact that a fragment of space debris nearly demolished one of the Tall Whites's ships, so clearly shielding doesn't always work.

  4. tony72

    Don't they know anything?

    "Not only that, but according to a couple of scientists working for Raytheon, it doesn't matter whether Einstein's proposition that you'll never accelerate matter beyond light-speed is right or wrong: collisions with matter will probably rip your spaceship apart anyway, and photons will slow you down."

    That is what the Main Deflector is for. "The deflector commonly took the form of a dish-shaped force beam generator containing heavy-duty subspace accelerators at the extreme forward end of the vessel's secondary hull. It performed its primary function by emitting low-power deflector shields to deflect microscopic particles and higher-powered deflector beams and/or tractor beams to deflect larger objects."

    What do you mean, Star Trek isn't real?

    1. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: Don't they know anything?

      >What do you mean, Star Trek isn't real?

      It is real.

      It's just not real yet.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Don't they know anything?

        It might very well real right now. Just not in our part of the universe. Hmm... or maybe not this universe....

        1. Developer Dude

          Re: Don't they know anything?

          Or, it isn't part of our human technology.

          The universe is a big place. If something is possible in the realm of physics, then it is certainly possible that another intelligent civilization has implemented it, and may still be using it if they didn't die out before we grew to the point where we would observe them using it in our small corner of the universe.

          There may be millions or even billions of other civilizations out there, maybe many of the able to travel through space faster than or at some significant fraction of the speed of light. But even if they could travel at some multiple of the speed of light, the distances are so vast that they may never visit anywhere near us.

          So just because we don't know how, doesn't mean that many others don't know either - or didn't know when they still existed.

      2. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: Don't they know anything?

        ">What do you mean, Star Trek isn't real?

        It is real.

        It's just not real yet."

        It's amazing how much of it is right now. Only 50 years after its debut. I have to wonder what the next 50 years will bring.

      3. dan1980

        Re: Don't they know anything?


        "It's just not real yet."

        From a technology standpoint, maybe - though much of it is fundamentally flawed, of course. (Even ignoring the Jar-Jar-verse.)

        Once things are down to "it's an engineering problem", the only barrier is economics.

        Unfortunately, there's a lot in Star Trek that is far more fanciful than warp drive and inexplicably compatible sexual coupling and reproduction. The idea of some kind of perfect egalitarian society in a post-scarcity, post-conflict, post-need human society is way behind things like deflector dishes in the list of things likely to happen.

        Which reminds me - time to take my meds.

      4. Ammaross Danan

        Re: Don't they know anything?

        Just ask Tom Cruise about the Space Corps. It was ALREADY real....

    2. Adam Azarchs

      Re: Don't they know anything?

      No, not the main deflector. That's for weapons fire. You're thinking of the navigational deflector, which while sufficiently powerful to deflect pretty much any 21st-century weapon, isn't capable of deflecting things like photon torpedos with kilogram-scale antimatter warheads.

  5. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    And if all that fails

    just reverse the polarity of the neutron flux!

  6. Andy Non Silver badge

    Captain, she canna take it, unless we drop out of warp now the manifold is going to explode. Even if we survive the explosion the dilithium crystals are shot.

  7. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    explains that Einstein's universal speed limit applies to a vacuum

    It's a "speed limit" in the same sense as the branch of a hyperbola is a "rotation limit" but okay...

  8. Rich 2 Silver badge

    Err duh!!!!

    Just put your forward Shields up.

  9. thomas k.

    the radiation will tell us they're on the way.

    Sounds like the premise for a sci-fi movie, except with aliens instead of asteroids. Call Bruce Willis.

    1. Shrimpling

      Re: the radiation will tell us they're on the way.

      I would rather have Sigourney Weaver for dealing with Aliens.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: the radiation will tell us they're on the way.

        I will take both Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver...

        And don't mess with Mama Bear, by the way.

  10. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge


    Hook up the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 submeson brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian motion generator (say a cup of hot tea), feed it the improbability for an infinite improbability drive, and away you go. No more mucking about in hyperspace.

    Unless you want to deal with Bistromathics, of course

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Well, there's probably more chance of aliens taking note of my 'Cold Callers : Bugger Off' sign than fucking conservatory salesmen.

    1. GitMeMyShootinIrons

      Re: Ding Dong, ALIENS CALLING

      And I, for one, welcome our conservatory vending overlords.... with the mighty relativistic baseball of (30 megaton) power!

      Boom! And yooouuurrr out!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ding Dong, ALIENS CALLING

        Should be: "Boom! And yooouuurrr'e out!"

        Even at near-light speeds, the laws of grammar still apply.

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          Re: Ding Dong, ALIENS CALLING

          But your apostrophe - is it relativistically rrr'ed-shifted?

          Even so, I believe it will still be "Boom! And yooouuu'rrre out!" for an observer on board...

  12. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Have they ever read any Sci-Fi

    If yes, then how did they fail to notice the bloody big shields usually carried in front of relativistic spaceships?

    If no, then The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) by Arthur C Clarke might be a good point to start...

    1. Thoguht Silver badge

      Re: Have they ever read any Sci-Fi

      Or like one story I read a long time ago (can't remember its title), the ships were basically large bundles of very thin, needle-like mini-ships. So when they ran into uncharted nebulae, they split up into a cloud of mini-ships and then reassembled themselves afterwards.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Have they ever read any Sci-Fi

        The Storm? had Delian and non-delian robots I think

  13. Stevie Silver badge


    Sorry, article author, but any true science fiction fan will already have figured that at near-lightspeed the blue-shifted cosmic background is coming on as gamma rays.

    The rest of your article then follows as "Well, duh!"

  14. rvt

    Step 1 ) Turn yourself into pure energy.

    Step 2) Travel at the speed of light.

    Step 3) When arrive at destination, turn yourself from energy back into mass.

    Step 4) Profit.

    From your your own point of view you 'jumped' from point A to point B.

    The only difference is that the place you jumped into was 'shifted' in time by XX.

    1. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge


      Step 1) Project your thoughts to distant star system.

      Step 2) Thoughts being massless, you arrive instantly.

      Step 3) Converse with the advanced beings who abide there.

      Step 4) Be back in time for the pub.

      1. Rafael 1

        @Mystic Megabyte

        Step 1) Go to pub earlier

        Step 2) Drink a lot.

        Step 3) See aliens.

      2. MrDamage

        @Mystic Megabyte

        I prefer Ly Tin Weedle's approach.

        The only things known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Weedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles - kingons, or possibly queons - that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expounded because, at that point, the bar closed.

  15. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    “Our calculation for what an observer on Earth could detect predicts a very unusual signature that is unlikely to be caused by any naturally occurring object in the known universe,"

    But there are naturally occurring relativistic objects in the form of cosmic radiation. So why do we not detect such a signature?

    Or is this how Raytheon were hoping to detect incoming aliens at UK borders?

  16. DougS Silver badge

    Build it out of dark matter

    Since we don't know anything about its properties, I'm going to decide for the purposes of this post that it will cause all normal matter and photons to bend around it like water going around a ship. Just as scientifically valid as the people saying "deflector dish".

    1. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Build it out of dark matter

      But then, how would you find it after you'd parked it?

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: Build it out of dark matter

        "But then, how would you find it after you'd parked it?"

        With the key fob, of course. *CHIRP CHIRP*

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Re: Build it out of dark matter

          was the pilot dead for tax purposes and the controls black on black with black warning lights?

          1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

            Re: Build it out of dark matter

            I'd better put on my peril-sensitive sunglasses right now.

      2. Michael Dunn

        Re: Build it out of dark matter @Stevie

        In the same way as you know when you've run out of invisible ink!

  17. Joey

    On the wrong track completely...

    Everyone knows that the big bang started in a parallel universe and burst into ours, where there was nothing to start with. There are an infinite number of parallel universes of different sizes, scales and shapes. To travel great distances in our universe is just a matter of popping over to another universe that has a different scale and temporal flow, travelling a short distance and them popping back into our universe st the distant destination. No near-light speed needed, no deflectors, no cryogenic chambers, no Bussard Scramjets, no wormholes. All you need is a sidestep! We don't have these yet but something else might!

  18. EvanPyle

    If the are approaching at or obove light speed we would see any warning signs until they arrived with the space ship or after it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      When a ship is near light speed, its arrival is also its departure, or nearly so. Unless something very solid arrests its motion. Small moon or bigger should suffice...

  19. cosmo the enlightened

    But hang on, what if...

    I create a Dark Matter energy field around my space ship, won't that allow me to slip seamlessly through all other particles and photons without interaction?

    Ref: article the other day on two galaxies smashing together and DM passing seamlessly through with no interaction.

  20. TheProf


    Isn't Raytheon the name of a Tefal-foreheaded alien from 'This Island Earth'?

    He probably travels by interocitor.

  21. lawndart


    If you are interested in rocket design and the problems with space travel such as the one mentioned in this article then get yourself to Winchell Chung's Atomic Rockets website:

    Prepare to be somewhat depressed when you are repeatedly told "no, you can't do that" however.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No inclusion of the effects of dark matter and dark energy


    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: No inclusion of the effects of dark matter and dark energy

      It's a truly awful paper. But no problem in the maths jumps out. Of course, that could be because the presentation of the equations is so shockingly bad.

      And the idea of a CMB reflection signature is novel.

  23. WalterAlter

    Call the Wiz on This One

    Any alien civilization with a million year technological head start on us will simply click their heels together three times and repeat "There's no place like Gamma99375n600772Xc32199B".

  24. Super Fast Jellyfish

    Alternative to Warp Drive

    I always quite liked the idea of Harry Harrison's Bloater Drive:,_the_Galactic_Hero#Bloater_Drive

  25. ZSn


    Sorry to rain on everyone's parade but this particular 'problem' has been done to death enough times that it is a physics undergraduate trope. Sheesh - and I used to think that Raytheon were competent.

  26. Gordon 10 Silver badge

    They'll use magic

    Or something sufficiently advanced that it will be indistinguishable from it.

  27. David Roberts

    Two words

    Bussard Ramjet

    1. cray74

      Re: Two words

      Five words: does not work.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    [waiting until the photons and dust can be removed by laser equipped space sharks at the pointy end of the ship.]

    (waits for someone to point out the flaw).

    1. Anonymous Coward

      fitting the lasers to the sharks is problematical, also what type Bull or great White etc

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Brown trousers time

    Look, I'm trying to navigate at faster than the speed of light, which means that before you see something, you've already passed through it. Even with an IQ of 6000, it's still brown-trousers time.

    Okay, the article was about relativistic speeds less than the speed of light, but I still like that line ;-) And it still applies in a way -- by the time you've detected CMBs, at relativistic speeds they've already done their damage.

  30. x 7

    If Raytheon couldn't program a computer to control our borders, they've no chance of coming up with the correct answer to a scientific problem

  31. ecofeco Silver badge

    There always will be limitations

    And there will always be some wacko genius who just goes around them.

    For instance: right here on El Reg

    NASA tests crazytech flying saucer thruster, could reach Mars in days

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: There always will be limitations

      Oh, you think that bullshit is serious and not clickbait?


      Let me laugh even harder.

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: There always will be limitations

        So you are smarter than NASA?

        Please laugh all you want. Oh yes, please do. I promise I won't try to torture you by also mentioning quantum entanglement.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Re: There always will be limitations

          So you are smarter than NASA?

          No, but I'm not stupid enough to believe that all of physics from the ground up needs to be rewritten because some idiots didn't pay attention in class when error bars were explained.

          quantum entanglement

          Amazingly, that kind of thing can be tested anywhere, consistently and we have the math to describe it (even if it did take von Neumann to write the primer). That "NASA" retardation, not so much.

  32. Brock Knudsen

    Obviously the technology that we have no real understanding of would be completely baffled by something we do understand... Take that stupid aliens!!! and when they do get here they will be completely overwhelmed by the common cold too, because invading aliens would never see that coming... Or they might invade our water planet when they are in fact allergic to it...

  33. Jim Birch

    Ok, so these unexplained ultra-high-energy cosmic ray (UHECR) particles are produced by alien hoons doing near-c donuts somewhere out there in the local supercluster.

    Damn those Xxzyipgaaalokeeaens and their goddam hotted-up space chariots!

  34. Kaltern

    I find it fascinating how 'fizzysists' decide that something isn't possible, because it isn't part of the Standard Model.

    Quite apart from the fact that black holes shove the Standard Model up their infinite cavity, it's just ridiculous and very.. well, human, to think that if WE don't know how it's done - then it can't be done.

    Space flight was deemed impossible because humans could not possibly withstand the rigors of space.

    The Horseless Carriage was deemed impossible because noone could think of how to make something move without oats.

    If only these men of science would just try to figure out HOW to do something, rather than spend time telling us why it CAN'T be done, we'd be living on Mars by now...

  35. Wzrd1

    What is strang is

    I calculated just these subjects a decade and change ago.

    Blue shifted radiation from the direction of travel would be hard gamma radiation. Re-emission of the absorbed gamma would cause everything from RF through pair production, with plenty of gamma being re-emitted. Exhaust energy would range from IR through RF.

  36. Stephen Wilkinson

    Oh if only I was a Steven...

    I'd be working on far more interesting stuff!

  37. Stuart Halliday

    Which is why Star Trek uses deflector Shields?

  38. Daggerchild Silver badge


    Use a small black hole as a nose cone. Or a confined plasma? Or howabout negative refractive indices? Can you negatively refect gravity (a wave is a wave)? Maybe just fling a wormhole and use it when it's close enough. Pre-ship blobs of quantum entangled matter and then change their state from HQ later to match a desired material form?

    Of course it's far easier just to ditch the physical manifestation and send data. That's all everything is at the end of the day. You only need physics for your 'hypervisor'. Then you could use needle-thin vessels and assemble yourself at the end of the journey (whichever of your vessels survives the journey). Maybe use gravity and laser manipulation to induce amino-acid assembly in some remote planet's atmosphere then wait until they're able to pick up the phone and then 'call collect' e.g. the film Contact

  39. x 7

    I thought the idea was everything was deflected into the maw of a fusion-reactor ramjet?

  40. OGShakes

    Stargate has the answer

    Dial Number

    Watch wormhole open

    Step through

    Panic when you realise you have a wrong number

  41. AbeSapian

    The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

    The good news is warp drive is still on the table.

    The bad news is everyone waiting for you will be toast on your arrival.

    The ugly news is this sounds like a great weapon.

  42. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    Re. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

    I had this discussion with some folks on the LHC forum; the upshot was that the Wow! signal just might have been the radio leakage from dropping out of FTL.

    Assuming an Alcubierre-like hypertime drive which uses superdense rotating normal matter in front to locally accelerate the expansion of the Universe for propulsion.

    It could be that a Gen 0 (ie Phoenix) FTL might generate a certain RF pulse signature but an entire fleet of ships dropping out would have to do so sequentially or bad things would occur.

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