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Debate: Colonization of the Moon

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Is colonizing the Moon a good idea?

Background and context

The colonization of the Moon is the proposed establishment of permanent human communities on the Moon. Moon colonization is also known as space settlement, space humanization, and space habitation. The most prominent proposal, within NASA, is known as the "Moonbase". Advocates of space exploration have seen settlement of the Moon as a logical step in the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth.
In 2006, US President George W. Bush announced plans
to colonize the Moon, although the subsequent economic crisis dampened talk of such a colony under the Obama administration. Yet, the debate continues, framed by multiple questions: Is space exploration and colonization - of the Moon and any other planet - important? Is it important as a source of inspiration? Is is necessary as a means of fulfilling a supposed, innate "human impulse" to explore and discover? Is the Moon a good testing ground for broader space exploration and colonization? Is it a good testing ground and possibly "launch-pad" for a mission to Mars ("Moon-to-Mars")? Is colonization of the Moon safe? Can humans survive, reproduce, and grow healthily in low-gravity? Is the colonization of the Moon generally feasible, practical, and economically reasonable? Are there commercial/export opportunities on the Moon? Is colonization of the Moon, and any subsequent space exploration important to human survival? Is colonization important to scientific discovery on the Moon as well as of the universe? Can colonization help heal political conflicts on Earth? Overall, is the colonization of the Moon a good idea?

Contents

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Space exploration: Is colonizing the Moon critical to space exploration/discovery?

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Yes

  • Moon colonization similarly important as colonizing America "Why Go Back to the Moon?" NASA. January 14, 2008: "To put the arguments for a return to the Moon, and a lunar outpost, in the most general terms: the Moon is essentially a whole planet, one that has so far been barely touched. But this new planet is only a few days travel away and we have already camped on it. To turn our backs on the Moon would be equivalent to European exploration stopping after Columbus’s few landings, or China’s destruction of its giant ships to concentrate on domestic problems in the 15th century."
  • Moon colonization satisfies human desire to explore Robert Roy Britt. "10 Reasons to Put Humans Back on the Moon." Space.com. December 8th, 2003: "1. Satisfy the soul [...] Beyond the basic needs for food, shelter and clothing, we humans are a restless lot. Exploration seems to be in our bones. The quest for knowledge is not an exclusive motivator in the desire to venture across land, sea, air or cosmic frontiers. 'The practical case for manned spaceflight gets ever-weaker with each advance in robotic probes and fabricators,' Sir Martin Rees, one of the world's leading theoretical astrophysicists, told SPACE.com last week as the rumors swirled. 'Indeed as a scientist I see little purpose in sending people into space at all. But as a human being, I'm nonetheless an enthusiast for space exploration -- to the Moon, to Mars and even beyond -- as a long-range adventure for (at least a few) humans.'"
  • Moonbase would be ideal staging area for space exploration The energy required to send objects from the Moon to space is much less than from Earth to space. Ease of landing on and launching from the Moon makes it an ideal construction site or fueling station for spacecraft. Some proposals even include using electric acceleration devices (mass drivers) to propel objects off the Moon without building rockets.


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No

  • There are too few practical reasons to colonize the Moon Gregg Easterbrook. "Moon Baseless". Slate. Dec. 8, 2006: "The United States will have a permanent base on the moon by the year 2024, NASA officials said on Monday. What does the space agency hope to discover on the moon? The reason it built the base. [...] Coming under a presidency whose slogan might be 'No Price Too High To Accomplish Nothing,' the idea of a permanent, crewed moon base nevertheless takes the cake for preposterousness. Although, of course, the base could yield a great discovery, its scientific value is likely to be small while its price is extremely high. Worse, moon-base nonsense may for decades divert NASA resources from the agency's legitimate missions, draining funding from real needs in order to construct human history's silliest white elephant. [...] What's it for? Good luck answering that question. There is scientific research to be done on the moon, but this could be accomplished by automatic probes or occasional astronaut visits at a minute fraction of the cost of a permanent, crewed facility. Astronauts at a moon base will spend almost all their time keeping themselves alive and monitoring automated equipment, the latter task doable from an office building in Houston. In deadpan style, the New York Times story on the NASA announcement declared, 'The lunar base is part of a larger effort to develop an international exploration strategy, one that explains why and how humans are returning to the moon and what they plan to do when they get there.' Oh–so we'll build the moon base first, and then try to figure out why we built it. [...] NASA itself can't really offer an answer, though it does offer a free, downloadable 'Why the Moon?' poster. According to the poster, a moon base would 'enable eventual settlement' of Earth's satellite—which might happen someday, but represents an absurd waste of tax money in the current generation. (No one has any interest in settling Antarctica, which is much more amenable to life than the moon and can be reached at far less than 1 percent of the cost.)"
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Health: Is the colonization of the Moon healthy for humans?

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Pro

  • Moon colony would feel comforted by site of large Earth. On the lunar near side, the Earth appears large and is always visible as an object 60 times brighter than the Moon appears from Earth, unlike more distant locations where the Earth would be seen merely as a star-like object, much as the planets appear from Earth. As a result, a lunar colony might feel less remote to humans living there.
  • Artificial gravity can overcome health risks on Moonbase. Artificial gravity is not a very difficult task to accomplish. The technology already exists in many forms and will continue to advance with a focused effort to develop it for a Moonbase. This will overcome any major health risks associated with the low-gravity levels on the Moon as well as on Mars.
  • Moonbase advances knowledge of human viability on alien planets. It is critical that humans begin the process of understanding the health implications of living on alien planets, including the Moon, Mars, and possibly others in the distant future. This requires understanding - among other things - the implications of living in a lower-gravity planet, such as the Moon, and developing techniques - such as artificial gravity - to cope with any issues that may arise. The Moon is an ideal place to begin this technological process.


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Con

  • Moon's gravity is too low for human health "Why the Moon will Never be Colonized." Phil for Humanity: "The Moon will never be colonized for a single reason. Basically, the Moon’s gravity is less than 17% of Earth’s gravity, and people can not survive long periods of time at such low gravity. [...] Even though people could easily survive short time periods in this low gravity, it would be extremely unhealthy for prolonged periods of time especially when returning to Earth. For instance, long stays in low gravity can and will result with significant loss in bone density and muscle atrophy, just to name the two most common issues with low gravity."
  • Children would not develop properly in low-gravity Moon colony "Why the Moon will Never be Colonized." Phil for Humanity: "The bigger problem with colonizing the Moon is the effects that low gravity will have on children. The human development process has evolved perfectly with Earth’s high gravity. On the Moon, children would most likely develop severe and possibly fatal deformities under low gravity. For instance, their bones would be extremely brittle and break often. Their hearts would be very weak and never fully develop, as well as possibly all of their other muscles too. Children would literally grow to extreme heights that will cause severe complications on the spinal cord and digestive systems, because these organs have limited stretching capabilities. As a result, colonists on the Moon might not be able to have healthy children capable of living long enough to have children of their own."


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Moon-to-Mars: Would colonizing the Moon aid a mission to Mars?

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Pro

  • Colonizing the Moon would test new technologies along with testing space colonization. Colonizing the Moon is now far more important than colonizing Mars now. Firstly, the Moon is a far more easier place for people to live since man had stepped foot on Moon, making Moon an ideal place to colonize first. Secondly, Mars have a more hostile environment than the Moon. Thirdly, technology preparing to colonize the Moon is far more developed than technology preparing to colonize Mars. Fourthly, colonizing a place like Moon first will test our abilities to colonize far, hostile planets possibly filled with equally hostile aliens.
  • Colonizing the Moon is a good test for colonizing Mars. If the Moon were colonized then it could be tested whether humans can survive in microgravity. Those results could be utilized for a viable Mars colony as well.
  • Moonbase could be used to launch rockets on mission to Mars. A lunar base could also hold a future site for launching rockets to distant planets such as Mars. Launching rockets from the Moon would be an easier prospect than on Earth due to the Moon's lower gravity requiring a lower escape velocity.
  • Moon base would spark public interest in Mars mission. The creation of a base on our small companion would spark the public's interest, as the creation of such a base would most likely take less than a decade. After this, wait perhaps another decade or so and viola, you have yourself a Mars landing. If we were instead to mount a mission to Mars directly, it would take decades before the mission would be underway. The general public despises long waits, which equals to a lack of funds completely immobilizing the would be Mars landing.
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Con

  • Colonizing the Moon is not a logical step toward Mars Gregg Easterbrook. "Moon Baseless". Slate. Dec. 8, 2006: "Don't we need a moon base to go to Mars? No! When George W. Bush made his Mars-trip speech almost three years ago, he said a moon base should be built to support such a mission. This is gibberish. All concept studies of Mars flight involve an expedition departing from low-Earth orbit and traveling directly to the red planet. Stopping at the moon would require fuel to descend to the lunar surface, then blast off again, which would make any Mars mission hugely more expensive."
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Human survival: Is colonization of the Moon critical to human survival?

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Pro

  • Colonizing the Moon is critical for human survival William Burrows. "Colonize the Moon." Wall Street Journal. February 2, 2007: "The overriding reason to establish a colony on the moon is humanity's survival: Darwin achieves liftoff. [...] Earth has been pummeled by asteroids and probably comets, large and small, throughout its existence. The dinosaurs are thought to have met their end because of a huge asteroid that hit roughly 65 million years ago. But they also may have owed their existence to another huge impactor that killed off their competitors millions of years earlier. As the old saw has it, the giant beasts would still be around if they had had a space program."
  • Moon colony could be safeguard against asteroids "Why Go Back to the Moon?" NASA. January 14, 2008: "The bleak conclusion to which these facts point is that humanity is vulnerable as long as we are confined to one planet. Obviously, we must increase our efforts to preserve this planet and its biosphere, an effort in which NASA satellites have played a vital role for many years. But uncontrollable external events may destroy our civilization, perhaps our species. We can increase our chances of long-term survival by dispersal to other sites in the solar system."
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Con

  • Human survival is ensured by fighting global warming, not Moonbase. Global warming is the predominant threat to humanity at present. Fighting it should be the focus of our efforts. In so far as a Moonbase distracts and diverts resources from this effort, it does a disservice to our long-term survival.
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Feasibility: Is the colonization of the Moon feasible?

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Pro

  • The proximity of the Moon to Earth makes it ideal to colonize The Moon is the closest large body in the solar system to Earth. While some Earth-crosser asteroids occasionally pass closer, the Moon's distance is consistently within a small range close to 384,400 km. This proximity has several benefits, making it easier to transport supplies and build a colony, requiring less energy to do so, offering the prospect of emergency rescues and mission abortions, and also enabling timely communications.
  • A colony at the Lunar north pole would avoid temperature extremes. An exception to the extreme conditions on the moon is the so-called "peaks of eternal light" located at the lunar north pole that are constantly bathed in sunlight. The rim of Shackleton Crater, towards the lunar south pole, also has a near-constant solar illumination. This would be an ideal place for a colony.
  • Existing holes and lunar caves can serve as basis for a moon-base. Large and long holes and winding tunnels, called lava tubes, recently found on and beneath the surface of the Moon, can be used as a basis of a moon base. Given a suitable cave system is found, deep enough beneath the Moon's surface to protect from solar wind and space radiation in general, it is basically a base already built. The explorers would of course need to overbuild the openings and add some life-support systems, but substantial part of the work would be already done. This would basically repeat the history, as people's first habitation were caves.
  • A colony at the Lunar north pole could rely on solar energy. Because the Moon's axis of rotation is almost perfectly perpendicular to the ecliptic plane, it may be possible to power polar colonies exclusively with solar energy. For example, Malapert mountain, located near the Shackleton crater at the lunar south pole is attractive as a possible site for a lunar base, (not only) because it receives nearly continuous sunlight.
  • Water is present on the Moon According to the Indian Chandrayaan-1 mission, water is a plentiful resource on the Moon. Additionally, it seems to be still forming, thus advancing the possibility that human life could be sustained there. "Scientists even hope that astronauts could one day not only drink the water but extract oxygen from it to breathe and hydrogen to use as fuel. The reports from the Indian mission were backed up by the findings of two other studies to be published in the journal Science, showing that the water may be actively moving around, forming and reforming as particles mixed up in the dust on the surface of the moon." [1] Independent LCROSS mission confirmed the presence of copious amount of water in lunar polar region, albeit its results suggest that cleaning might be required before the water is drinkable. [2]


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Con

  • The Moon lacks materials for self-sufficiency. The Moon lacks light elements (volatiles), such as carbon and nitrogen, although there is some evidence of hydrogen near the north and south poles. Additionally, oxygen, though one of the most common elements in the regolith constituting the Moon's surface, is only found bound up in minerals that would require complex industrial infrastructure using very high energy to isolate. Some or all of these volatiles are needed to generate breathable air, water, food, and rocket fuel, all of which would need to be imported from Earth until other cheaper sources are developed. This would limit the colony's rate of growth and keep it dependent on Earth.
  • Moon dust is an extremely abrasive substance. Moon dust is an extremely abrasive glassy substance formed by micrometeorites and unrounded due to the lack of weathering. It sticks to everything, can damage equipment, and it may be toxic.
  • A moon colony would be at extreme risk of meteor strikes. The lack of an atmosphere increases the chances of the colonial site being hit by meteors, which would impact upon the surface directly, as they have done throughout the Moon's history. Even small pebbles and dust (micrometeoroids) have the potential to damage or destroy insufficiently protected structures.
  • Temperature extremes make colonizing the Moon very challenging. The Moon would has very extreme cold and heat, depending on where the sun shines, which presents many challenges to a lunar colony. The lack of a substantial atmosphere for insulation results in temperature extremes and makes the Moon's surface conditions somewhat like a deep space vacuum. It also leaves the lunar surface exposed to half as much radiation as in interplanetary space (with the other half blocked by the moon itself underneath the colony). Although lunar materials would potentially be useful as a simple radiation shield for living quarters, shielding against solar flares during expeditions outside is more problematic.
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Economics: Is the colonization of the Moon economical?

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Pro

  • Colonized Moon could export mineral resources to Earth "Why Go Back to the Moon?" NASA. January 14, 2008: "The Moon may offer mineral resources, so to speak, of great value on Earth. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, working with the Fusion Technology Institute of the University of Wisconsin, has shown that helium 3, an isotope extremely rare on Earth, exists in quantity in the lunar soil, implanted by the solar wind. If – a very big if – thermonuclear fusion for energy is produced on Earth, helium 3 would be extremely valuable for fusion reactors because it does not make the reactor radioactive. A more practicable use of helium 3, being tested at the University of Wisconsin, is the production of short-lived medical isotopes. Such isotopes must now be manufactured in cyclotrons and quickly delivered before they decay. But Dr. Schmitt suggests that small helium 3 reactors could produce such isotopes at the hospital. In any event, research on the use of helium 3 would clearly benefit if large quantities could be exported to the Earth."
"25 Good Reasons to Go to the Moon." Out of the Cradle. June 14, 2008: "A good proportion of the Lunar soil returned by astronauts was in the form of glass. Lunar glass has the distinct characteristic of having formed in a water-free environment, making it anhydrous. What advantages this may offer in the field of optics is largely Luna Incognito. Then there’s fiberglass, composites, etc."
  • Colonizing Moon will foster space commercialization Robert Roy Britt. "10 Reasons to Put Humans Back on the Moon." Space.com. December 8, 2003: "3. Foster commercialization [...] There is no agreement among scientists over the role private enterprise ought to play in human spaceflight. Yet already, commercial companies help build the machines that carry astronauts into space. [...] Many experts think space tourism and even certain mining and manufacturing will succeed in space if only entrepreneurs are turned loose (and perhaps assisted with federal money or incentives). [...] "Perhaps future space probes will be plastered in commercial logos, just as Formula I racers are now," Rees says. "Perhaps 'robo-wars' in space will be a lucrative spectator sport."


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Con

  • Colonizing the Moon would be too expensive to justify Gregg Easterbrook. "Moon Baseless". Slate. Dec. 8, 2006: "How much will it cost? NASA said Monday it can build a moon base for about the $10 billion per year it now spends on the (soon-to-be-retired) space shuttle and the space station. (The agency also says that the international community will soon begin funding the space station, but no nation has agreed to this.) Considering that the space station and shuttle cost about $10 billion per year, a moon base might cost much more. The space station is 200 miles away and only goes up, never comes down. The equipment for a moon base would need to be accelerated to a significantly higher speed than was required for the space station, and that means a lot more fuel and a lot more expense. Moon-base ships will also need lots of fuel to descend to the lunar surface, and some will need still more fuel to blast off again. [...] This quickly gets you to a program cost of at least $300 billion to build the moon base."
  • Growing crops on the moon faces many difficult challenges. This is due to many challenges, including the long lunar night (nearly 15 earth days), extreme variation in surface temperature, exposure to solar flares, and lack of insects for pollination. (Due to the lack of any atmosphere on the Moon, plants would need to be grown in sealed chambers, though experiments have shown that plants can thrive at pressures much lower than those on Earth.) The use of electric lighting to compensate for the 28 day/night might be difficult: a single acre of plants on Earth enjoys a peak 4 megawatts of sunlight power at noon. While this does not mean that growing crops is impossible, it does indicate that it would be fairly expensive and that a moon colony would probably could not become fully self-sufficient, and would have to rely to some degree on the Earth, which would be fairly expensive.
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Science: Are there good scientific reasons for colonizing the Moon?

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Pro

  • Moonbase will help answer remaining scientific questions Robert Roy Britt. "10 Reasons to Put Humans Back on the Moon." Space.com. December 8, 2003: "4. Gather rocks [...] The Apollo era answered many questions about the Moon. But much was left undone. [...] Scientists see the Moon as an attic of Earth, a place where rocks long ago blasted from our planet are sitting around waiting to be studied. This history has not decayed much because there is almost no atmosphere and little geological activity on the Moon. [...] Earth, on the other hand, regularly recycles clues to its past, pulling material inward, and spitting it back out as unrecognizable lava. [...] 'We are talking about finding material from the very early Earth,' says John Armstrong of the University of Washington in Seattle. 'Samples of the Earth 3.9 to 4.0 billion years ago could tell us a lot about the state of the early atmosphere, what the crust and surface were like, and possibly even when life began to evolve.'"
  • The Moon would be ideal site for a space observatory. A lunar base would provide an excellent site for any kind of observatory. Particular advantages arise from building observatory facilities on the Moon from lunar materials. As the Moon's rotation is so slow, visible light observatories could perform observations for days at a time. It is possible to maintain near-constant observations on a specific target with a string of such observatories spanning the circumference of the Moon. The fact that the Moon is geologically inactive along with the lack of widespread human activity results in a remarkable lack of mechanical disturbance, making it far easier to set up interferometric telescopes on the lunar surface, even at relatively high frequencies such as visible light.
  • Moon is ideal for extra-terrestrial discovery "Why Go Back to the Moon?" NASA. January 14, 2008: "Another example of Moon-based astronomy can be the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), by radio telescopes that on the far side would be shielded from terrestrial interference. Small telescopes on the Moon’s solid surface could be linked to form interferometer arrays with enormous resolving power. Astronomy in a limited sense has already been done from the Moon, namely the Apollo 16 Ultraviolet telescope emplaced by Apollo astronauts and before that, the simple TV observations of Earth-based lasers by the Surveyor spacecraft. The much-feared lunar dust had no effect on these pioneering instruments."
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Con

  • Knowledge of Moon extensive; colonization adds little Donald A. Beattie. "Just how full of opportunity is the Moon?" The Space Review. February 12, 2007: "Scientific investigations, discussed in the recent National Research Council (NRC) report 'The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon' define an extensive exploration program. If pursued, the program would add additional information to our present knowledge of the Moon’s early history and current state. However, we already have an excellent understanding of the Moon’s history and composition compiled from data returned from Surveyor, Lunar Orbiter, and Apollo missions. The more recent Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions also contributed to our understanding. Added detail is only of interest to those who have spent most or all of their professional lives studying the Moon. It is unlikely that any new information collected during detailed lunar exploration will resolve fundamental questions being asked regarding the origin and evolution of the solar system."


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Manned mission: Is a manned mission to the Moon a good idea?

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Yes

  • A manned presence on the Moon is superior to a robotic one "Why Go Back to the Moon?" NASA. January 14, 2008: "Taking the Los Angeles Times title, 'Don’t colonize the Moon,' at face value [...] The Times editorial echoes identical arguments advanced in the early 1960s, that robotic missions could produce as much as manned ones. The US did in fact have a large robotic lunar program, including 3 Rangers, 5 Surveyors, 5 Lunar Orbiters, and 2 Radio Astronomy Explorers, not counting the few unsuccessful missions. So NASA did use robots in our first lunar program. But as argued at the time, human abilities on the surface later proved far superior to robotic ones."


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No


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Politics: Will a colony on the Moon improve the political relations between states?

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Pro

  • Colonizing Moon will improve cooperation between countries Robert Roy Britt. "10 Reasons to Put Humans Back on the Moon." Space.com. December 8, 2003: "2. Bring nations together Just as the International Space Station packed explorers from previously antagonistic nations into tight quarters, an effort to return to the Moon could bring nations together in an era of increasing international tension, some analysts say. China, with its own lunar ambitions, is a good example of a country the United States might want to work more closely with. 'I think the international public would cheer a program designed as a flagship for how space technology can be a role model for letting technicians of various countries work together in programs that would benefit all of us,' said William K. Hartmann, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson."


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Con

  • Territorial claims on the Moon will become a source of conflict. Just as humans staked out claims on Earth's North Pole, it is also likely that different countries will begin staking claims to territory on the Moon. This creates the possibility of raising tensions between nations.
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Pro/con sources:

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Yes

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No


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