24 september 2003 at 18:13:37 UT

Detective-pilot Biggles already said so, in a short story in
"Biggles investigates": never readily dismiss the report of a
British schoolboy, as they have very keen eyes, a sharp mind,
and know how to use them both.... The message is: do not readily
believe what appears to be shown, always question first for

    --Marco Langbroek, CCNet 4 October 2003








- A summary and comment on the controversy around some puzzling
pictures taken by a British schoolboy

by Marco Langbroek, Dutch Meteor Society

Detective-pilot Biggles already said so, in a short story in "Biggles
investigates" (W.E. Johns; Brockhampton Press, UK, 1964): never
readily dismiss the report of a British schoolboy, as they have very
keen eyes, a sharp mind, and know how to use them both.

This will be well remembered by meteor and impact experts worldwide
for some time I reckon, following the stir and controversy among
meteor experts, and then the press and the general public, created by
the pictures taken by 15-year old Jonathan Burnett, from Pencoed in
Wales, around sunset on September 24th. Being published on October
1st on NASA's website as "NASA Picture of the Day", they were reported
by a NASA astronomer as being spectacular images of the entry of a
"sofa-sized rock" which "came hurtling into the atmosphere of planet
earth and disintegrated", creating a rare and spectacular daylight
meteor over Wales. This captured the imagination of both the media
and specialists, but soon the latter started to doubt, and for two
days there emerged quite some discussion on what exactly these
pictures showed.

So this schoolboy's report certainly did get the attention it
deserved, even though in the end it was not what it initially was
thought to be. In this essay, I make a reconstruction of the events
surrounding these pictures and the publicity they got, and conclude
with what we can learn from this occasion, even though it wasn't a
fireball after all.

When the images and the image caption made by some NASA astronomer
appeared on the internet, they were quickly disseminated and discussed
through various internet mailing groups, which included a public of
both amateur and professional meteorite and meteor enthousiasts.
Initial reactions were varied. They ranged from excitement to caution
to downright suspicion.

More than one person voiced, in public or not, an opinion that it
concerned fakes. Eventually these suspicions were aired in the press
as well, upsetting Jon Burnett and his parents as ICWales press reported
on their news website ( Rightly upset
he was, because the images were NOT fakes. That became clear when
ICWales published a picture taken by a second person, Julian Heywood
from Porthcawl in Wales, showing the same trail in the sky, in an
image that had a much wider field than Jon Burnett's photographs.

One consensus already had been reached early on in the debate, and
that was that contrary to NASA's text caption with the picture on
their website, the first image of Burnett certainly did not show
the actual fireball, if indeed this trail was due to a fireball. Both
Australian astronomer and meteor expert Robert McNaught (Anglo
Australian Observatory) and this author (Dutch Meteor Society),
later seconded by NASA/SETI astronomer and meteor expert Peter
Jenniskens, pointed out on the NAMN Meteorobs and the
meteorite-central mailinglists that while certainly *not* showing
a fireball, instead the image *might* show the sun-illuminated dust
trail left *after* a fireball had appeared. This would also be more
consistent with Jon Burnett's recounted story in the press about how
he was taking pictures of his skateboarding friends, when a boy put
their attention to a fireball streaking the sky, after which Jonathan
took his pictures.

Such a dust-trail (which should not be confused with the glowing
persistent train often seen with bright meteors) is due to material
ablated from a large meteoroid, and has been reported for a number
of bolides, especially in the case where the objects were that
large that eventually meteorites could be recovered. It consists
of a trailing cloud of small particles and is essentially formed of
condensed meteoroid vapor. These trails remain visible for many
minutes after a fireball apparition. Indeed, for this author this
explanation gained credibility after he compared the Wales image to
that of such a sunlit dusttrail, video-imaged after the appearance of
the brilliant El Paso bolide over the US-Mexico border on October 9th,
1997 (see A.R. Hildebrandt et al., The El Paso superbolide of
October 9, 1997, Lun. Plan. Sci. Conf. 30, 1999). The trail in the
image of Burnett and the video image of the  El Paso bolide's
dusttrail looked quite similar.

Meanwhile the press had got hold of the story. And to make matters
more exciting, there were more fireball events reported around the
same date. There was a probable meteorite fall in India the same week
which got a lot of attention because of reported fatalities and fire
damage to houses. And a bright meteoric fireball appeared over Northern
France, near Verdun, two days later and was reported from Belgium, the
Netherlands and Germany.

So, was there a fireball stream active? Other fireball apparitions near
early October had been reported in previous years too. On the
meteorite-central mailing list, the suggestion was put forward,
by amongst others Steve Schoner of the American Meteor Society, that
it might concern meteorites from Mars - two well-known Martian
meteorites, Chassigny (1815) and Zagami (1962) both fell October 3rd.
In reality, there is little reason to think that such Martian meteorites
could occur in a stream (which would cause this spate of late
September-early October fireballs), as this author pointed out in
reponse (such a stream would require an origin for these meteoroids
and meteorites in an object in Near Earth Orbit - and of course,
Mars does not fit at all with this).

Considering the Wales event, the next question then raised, by amongst
others Nevada meteorite expert Robert Verish was: was this event in
Wales, if it was a fireball, a meteoric fireball, or a piece of
artificial rocket or satellite debris decaying in the atmosphere?
This author checked with the decay information provided by NASA's
Orbital Information Group (OIG) on their webserver: there were no
decays reported for September 24th, and the only object near decay
around this date (a small piece of debris from a 1970 rocket launch
reportedly having already decayed a day earlier) would not have passed
over the British Isles at the time the pictures were taken, even if
it had survived its predicted decay the day before.

So: a picture showing a dusttrail due to a meteoric fireball after
all, albeit not showing the actual fireball? One early voice on the
negative cautious side was British BAA meteor section's director Neil
Bone - and in the end he was proven right. Both on CCNet and the NAMN
Meteorobs mailing list he opted for a sunlit contrail of an aircraft.
He also pointed out the strange fact that there were no other reports
at all on a daylight fireball, while certainly an event of this
magnitude should be seen and reported by many. The fact that it
wasn't suggested that this was not a phenomena in the upper
atmosphere, but some very local phenomenon - such as an aircraft
contrail. Indeed, this point became a growing worry of many,
including this author. As meteoritic dust expert Frans Rietmeijer
(Dept. of Earth & Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico)
remarked to this author, the absence of confirmation was the more
strange since an object creating a dust trail of this magnitude could
be expected to cause some major sonic booms as well.

Regarding the contrail hypothesis, Neil Bone was later joined by
several others, for example by Robin Catchpole, the senior astronomer
at the British Royal Observatory, who expressed this opinion in
The Times, by the Dutch KNMI senior meteorologist Jacob Kuiper, and
by Belgian amateur astronomer Geert Barentsen. Dutch amateur astronomer
Klaas Jobse provided an image of an aircraft contrail taken only a
few days ago, where the shape of the contrail was quite like the trail
in the pictures from Wales, albeit lacking the strange bright 'glowing'
end of it. For some, this was reason to bring up the hypothesis
of a 'doctored' image.

It was the second picture, taken by Julian Heywood from Porthcawl
(not too far away from Pencoed) and appearing on the internet on
October 3rd, which eventually clearified a lot. First of all, it
made clear that Jonathan Burnett's pictures were not faked or
doctored. The image, which unlike Jonathan's was a wide field image,
also made clear at once what was being shown. This indeed, evidently
was an aircraft contrail, no doubt. Neil Bone had been right. The
only strange thing was the glowing end of it. But the NASA experts
(who by that time had wisely changed the text with the APOD
picture on their website to reflect the growing doubt, adding that
a 'more likely' explanation perhaps was an aircraft contrail glowing
due to some atmopsheric effect) had got it all wrong.

To end the discussion: this clearly *is* an aircraft contrail, no
meteor flaring up or sunlit dust cloud left by such a meteor. For the
'glowing' end of it, there are two explanations. One is that it
is a phenomenon similar to a 'sundog' or 'false sun', a phenomenon
from the halo-family: sunlight from the setting sun refracted by the
icy particles that make up such an high altitude contrail.

Yet another possibility was put forward on the BBC website, following
the solicitation of reader comments by the latter news agency. Chris
Roussel put forward that it could concern a military aircraft venting
fuel, which was then ignited by its afterburner, as he had once
witnessed such an event.

Carl Brooker seconded this, adding that he had seen something quite
similar when an F-111 dumped fuel over Norfolk some years ago. Indeed,
very early in the debate Frans Rietmeijer had privately mailed me
on October 1st that "the first image shows a rather jagged, irregular
billowing cloud that seems to suggest and exploding liquid". The
verdict on whether it was a sundog or an aircraft dumping and igniting
fuel should now come from Jonathan Burnett: if the story recounted in
the press is accurate and the boys indeed saw a fireball streaking
the sky after which Jonathan took his pictures, then the fuel dump
hypothesis would gain credibility. Jonathan, evidently being a keen
observer, could perhaps clearify this point for CCNet readers.

So there is yet a small bit of mystery left. A 'sundog', or an
aircraft dumping fuel? Anyway, we have come a long way from a
'sofa sized rock hurtling into the atmosphere of planet earth'.
But of course, not everybody is satisfied with a more 'down to earth'

Predictably, on the BBC website someone was already suggesting that
this is a cover up 'because NASA did not predict this meteorite impact'.
And one meteorite-central mailinglist subscriber mailed this author
a grudging comment that "some people truly want only to debunk the
unusual". These people clearly did not like to loose their "fireball".

What can be learned from this occasion? A few things merit comment.
One is, that clearly the UFO's of bygone days have given way to
meteorite impacts as the popular explanation for strange celestial
events with both public and press. This points out the clear impact
of the current scientific and media attention to NEA threat, near
earth asteroid searches, extinctions through impact, and the impact
of movies like 'Armageddon'. The fact that now the aircraft contrail
hypothesis has been accepted  (on very good grounds) some people
nevertheless want to stick to the fireball hypothesis is reveiling
in that aspect. Large asteroidal chunks entering the atmosphere are
now deemed more probable by some in the public than an aircraft -
just as once alien spacecraft were more probable than an aircraft.
Asteroidal impact, both small and large, has gained clear recognition
in society. That is one interesting conclusion in itself.

The second and more prozaic thing again underlined, is that even
good quality imaging does not mean that things are unambiguous, and
expert can be led astray by it, or in confusion. Jonathan Burnett's
pictures are as sharp as can be - but they were nevertheless not
conclusive in what they showed. What in science is known
as "equifinality" is again stressed with regard to the good comparison
of the trail in John Burnett's picture and the El Paso bolide's
dusttrail,: equifinility is the occasion of two different processes
having an apparent similar result. The message is: do not readily
believe what appears to be shown, always question first for
alternatives. Always a good initial position to take.

The third, and last thing that has become clear, is how sensitive
the role of NASA in public awareness is, and that things still can go
wrong in that aspect. After all, to the public and press NASA is
synonymous with 'experts': indeed, the press reported that NASA
'experts' had deemed this a picture of a space rock burning up in
the atmosphere - and therefore it was.

As will be clear, a number of knowledgeable people with regard to
fireballs were not quite sure whether to dismiss the pictures from
Wales as being totally unrelated to a meteoric event, although it
was clear that it certainly was not showing a fireball. In that sense,
we should not too readily point accusing fingers to NASA for the
suggestion. But what all knowledgeable people -amateur and
professional- with regard to meteor apparitions did all agree on,
is this one point that the first picture did certainly *not* show
a fireball at the moment of apparition. This was, however, exactly,
and quite confidently, what was initially suggested on the NASA
website in both the figure caption and the title of this APOD -
clearly an expert was *not* involved in this part of the story.
And that is a somewhat surprising observation, and it is not how
it should be given NASA's important position in public outreach,
being the major representative of the professional community in the
eyes of public and press. Here, NASA did not live up to its reputation
and this is where it al went wrong to start with.

It is a bit worrying that apparently, within the team responsible for
the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day, nobody seems to have taken the
care to contact an expert meteor astronomer first before declaring
this publicly a certified "daylight fireball" on their website. Had
this happened, then certainly the same kind of discussions (and initial
uncertainty) as to what exactly the picture showed would have occurred
- but in would not have played in front of the whole world community:
with a daylight fireball that wasn't and the discussions it raised
getting some major media attention (as it did in Britain). On the
other hand, it appears that Julian Haywood then might not have come
up with the second picture which solved the riddle. So there was
something good in something bad after all.

As for Jonathan Burnett, who took the pictures, he can be
congratulated for three things. First, for his accute awareness to take
a snapshot of a peculiar event in the sky. And second, for his
inquiring mind which led him to actually submit his pictures to NASA
in order to learn what this was.

Third, Jonathan can be congratulated for having puzzled a whole suite
of meteor specialists worldwide with his amazing pictures. So Biggles
clearly was right about British schoolboys, and Jonathan appears to
have all that might make him a good scientists in the future: a keen
eye, active and inquisitive mind, and a willingness to put his
observations up for peer review. He would later make a good NASA

Marco Langbroek
Leiden, the Netherlands
52.15896 N, 4.48884 E (WGS 84)


Dear Benny,

Below comment by Robert Matson ( just
appeared on the Meteorite Central list and I think it might be worth
adding as a note concerning the identification with an aircraft
trail. Indeed, in the second picture it was the long, narrow, only
very gently curved aspect of the trail which removed all doubt with
me that this was a contrail. It really looks like it by all means.

- Marco

By Robert Matson (

Perhaps the best evidence is the nature of the contrail itself.
Because a bolide has a downward component, any contrail it produces
will also.  Differential velocities of upper atmospheric winds
versus altitude will cause the contrail to corkscrew and scramble
fairly rapidly, much like the contrails we see from Vandenberg rocket
launches on the west coast.  In contrast, jet contrails are at
relatively constant altitude, so while they, too, get blown by the
wind, all portions of the contrail are exposed to roughly the same
wind direction and velocity.  The result is that jet contrails
keep their shape longer, merely getting "fuzzier" with time.  The
minutes-later image of the Wales contrail doesn't show any evidence
of kinking/corkscrewing, and that perhaps is the strongest evidence
against it being of space origin.



icWales, 3 October 2003

A STUNNING picture of a meteor burning up in the sky snapped by a
schoolboy out on his skateboard has divided some of the world's top

Nasa says the image is one of the best the institution has ever seen,
but Welsh astronomers claimed last night the photograph could be bogus.

Jonathan Burnett's picture has caused a global frenzy among space
anoraks who have been tracking him down to quiz him about the meteor.

But some have started questioning his amazing snap even claiming that it
may have been manufactured using a computer. The remarkable shot has
made 15-year-old Jonathan a star at Nasa, which made his photo Astronomy
Picture of the Day - beating off pictures from professional competitors
from around the world.

Jonathan, from Pencoed, near Bridgend, was taking action photographs of
his skateboarding friends when they spotted the orange ball of fire
tearing across the evening sky.

The quick-thinking teenager grabbed his new digital camera to capture
the once-in-a-lifetime frame. Then he e-mailed his picture to the Nasa
space centre in Houston, Texas - where experts said it was one of the
best shots of a meteor they'd ever seen.

But Jonathan is upset at accusations that his picture is a fake. His
mother said last night, "Jonathan wasn't sure what it was when the
picture was taken and he and his friends thought it could have been a
number of things.

"It was experts such as astronomers who said it was a meteor when he
e-mailed the picture to Nasa.

"Now people everywhere are saying that it may have been doctored and
Jonathan is very upset by this."

Shortly after being praised by Nasa, proud shooting star Jonathan said,
"I was skateboarding with my mates in the park when a little boy pointed
into the sky and said, 'The sun's exploding'.

"I looked up and saw a fireball dropping through the sky but I had no
idea what it was. I grabbed my camera and fired off a couple of

"My mum and dad suggested I sent it off to Nasa to ask what it was and
they ended up using it as their picture of the day. I was stunned.

"I had the camera on me because I'm just getting used to using it - I've
only had it for a month. I was just trying to get some action shots of
my friends.

"Everyone in school is amazed by my meteor picture - some people at
school can't believe it."

On the website, a Nasa expert describes the photo as "one of the more
spectacular sky images yet recorded."

It says, "A sofa-sized rock came hurtling into the atmosphere of planet
earth and disintegrated. By diverting his camera, Jonathan was able to
document this rare sky event and capture one of the more spectacular
meteor images yet recorded."

But the Space Guard Centre, which analyses the threat posed by meteors
to Earth, said the schoolboy's amazing picture could be a fake.

Centre spokesman Jay Tate, who is based in Knighton, Powys, claimed a
photograph of a meteor could be drafted in 10 minutes using a computer.

"It's difficult to give an accurate assessment of this without knowing
the scale of the meteor in the picture," Mr Tate said. "It's obvious the
picture has been magnified, but I'm dubious as Jonathan was using a
common digital camera. Bridgend is a populated area so why didn't anyone
else see this?

"Looking at the smoke trail of the meteor I would expect this to measure
a couple of metres across and probably shot tens of miles up in the air.

"If something of this size was photographed just five miles up it would
have had the potential of flattening a large city.

"There is considerable scepticism among experts regarding this
photograph. Until we get more information about what camera he was
using, the exposure, the lens, and the weather conditions on the evening
we will remain dubious. I'm not accusing anyone of doctoring it, but we
need to know more about it."

Montgomeryshire MP Lembit Opik, who was influential in persuading the
Government to set up a committee looking into the threat posed by Near
Earth objects, said, "If the photo is genuine it is of truly
astronomical significance.

"I am delighted young people are taking an enthusiastic approach to the
dangers posed by meteors. However, many experts feel that Jonathan's
picture isn't accurate, and to get the picture he may have taken a trip
in a spaceship to snap it. I cannot tell. But it was worthy of Nasa's
picture of the day. Jonathan has shown great initiative and whatever
happens he should get 10 out of 10 for effort."

Copyright 2003, icWales


icWales, 3 October 2003

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a meteor - and although he
didn't know it at the time that's exactly what Julian Heywood
snapped on his digital phone in Porthcawl.

The sight of the blazing meteor was striking enough for the
27-year-old Scotsman to whip out his phone and point. Then, after
reading about the 'bogus' meteor shot taken by Pencoed's Jonathan
Burnett, Julian knew he had just the thing to back up the
schoolboy's story.

"I thought nothing of it at the time," said the IT support worker
from Aberdeen, "I didn't even know what it was. But when I heard a
BBC report and read the story in the Western Mail that they thought
the picture was a fake, I thought: 'No way! I have the same picture!'"

Like Jonathan, Julian - who works in Bridgend - sent a copy of
the picture to NASA. "They were very excited about it," he said.
"They'll be keeping me informed."

Copyright 2003, icWales


Press Association, 2 October 2003

By Antony Stone, PA News

A schoolboy snapper is being celebrated across the globe today after a
dramatic aerial image he caught on camera was beamed round the world.

South Wales teenager Jonathan Burnett claims he has baffled the boffins
with his exceptional photograph of a fire blast ripping through the sky.

Now he has sent out a world-wide appeal in the hope someone can solve
the mystery of the dramatic image which triggered international

The 15-year-old, from Pencoed, Bridgend, was using his new digital
camera to snap his friends skateboarding when he spotted the huge blast.

After capturing the event on camera he e-mailed the image to experts at
Nasa in the hope of discovering exactly what it was.

But the schoolboy was stunned when experts from the agency contacted him
to say they intended using it as 'picture of the day' on the Nasa

"Since then the interest from the public and the media around the world
has been immense," his father Paul Burnett said today.

"We have had calls from Germany, Canada and all over the USA, from
journalists to people just wanting to congratulate him.

"There has been speculation that it is a meteor but the scientists from
Nasa don't seem to know what it is.

"It is still a mystery and the way we are looking at it is that a
15-year-old schoolboy has baffled the scientists.

"Jonathan has been overwhelmed by the attention, and to be honest it's
starting to disrupt his school work.

"But he would like to be able to put a photograph on his wall with a
title underneath saying where and when it was taken - and what it is."

He added: "That is why he is appealing worldwide and would like people
to contact him if they know what it is."

Copyright 2003, PA


BBC News Online, 3 October 2003

What could it be? Tell us what you think the fireball is? Send in
your suggestions using the form below.

It's a thing of beauty and mystery, two things there are not enough
of in the world today.
Anthony Harper, England

How come the fire ball is still there 1 or 2 minutes after the
first picture. I always thought these events were over in seconds?
Dan Curwood, UK

I agree with Chris Roussel: I've seen an F1-11 do this when dumping
fuel over Norfolk some years ago. Although the USAF denied it!
Carl Brooker, UK

It could well be a meteor, then again it may not be. The fact is,
that the young man has captured an image that has impressed NASA.
As a photographer, I know the importance in getting the image, and
has done a good job.
Simon, Jersey

Up until last year I lived in Cardiff, just up the road from Pencoed.
I have seen this before on several occasions when Concorde has flown
Colin, UK

It's obviously a meteorite. If NASA is claiming otherwise, it
sounds they're trying to cover it up! I can't see why, unless
they're worried because it's a meteorite they didn't detect. Or it's
a satellite they've crashed deliberately, but didn't tell anyone.
Ash, England

It can't have been a meteor if he took those pictures two minutes
apart as the article says.
Hugh, Scotland

Right now, I'm getting a strange feeling that I need to build a model
of a mountain on my coffee table ...
Dougie Lawson, Basingstoke, UK

When I was about 9 at home, my friends and I were outside one
evening and saw something in the sky, it was smaller but brighter as
it was night, I always wondered what it could have been, but thought
it too big to be a meteor, now I've read this, I think it probably was.
Emily, UK

If it was a meteor breaking up, would the orange glow last so long,
once it had burnt up wouldn't the glow stop as the smoke trail did?
No combustion, no light?
Ian, UK

It looks very different to the meteor that I saw last December hurtling
across the M27 towards Southampton. It had a very bright concentrate
sphere of light with a long tail of (less bright) light that changed
from yellow through orange to red. It did not look on fire as this
picture shows.
Melanie Richardson, United Kingdom

The NASA website today says that a "better hypothesis is an unusual
airplane contrail reflecting the setting sun." They've thought better
of their initial meteor hypothesis.
Neil, England

I saw something similar when I was up on Dartmoor at dusk in April
about 4 or 5 years ago. It started as a very bright light hurtling
across the sky, then it broke into 3 parts and burned out. About a
30 seconds later there was a loud bang followed by 2 sonic booms. It
left a small circular cloud in the sky were it entered. Many people
in the south west UK saw it and it was reported as a meteor. At the
time I thought it might be the second stage of a rocket re-entering
with the remaining fuel exploding. I sent the details to Dr Geoff
Perry of the Kettering Group, but he said that no space debris
re-entered at the time.
A Buchan, England

Just a theory, but it does look very similar to what happens when an
F1-11 vents fuel which is then ignited by it's afterburner.
Just a thought!
Chris Roussel, Great Britain

I think it's a terrible photo - if only he'd aimed more to the left
he'd have gotten a unique picture of the dragon itself!
Sophie, UK

I believe this to have really been a sofa sized sofa from a large
furniture store, you know the prices these days are out of this world!
Alex Stephens, UK

It's Wales' rugby World Cup chances...
Andy Hedger, England

Meteor, rubbish; it's a large orange balloon that is deflating.
Richard Wright, UK

I think it was Dr Who's Tardis breaking up on re-entry into the Earth's
Ken Spearpoint, UK

The fireball is Tony Blair's ego after it came hurtling back down to
Earth after his massive disaster that was the foundation hospitals vote.
Leigh Porter, UK

In years gone by, fireballs in the sky were thought to herald
forthcoming disaster - indeed, the very word 'disaster' means 'bad
star'. One look at the news would seem to confirm this possibility!
Jasmine, Wales

The contrail is darker on one side (away from the sun) which is against
it being a meteor. I see many contrails that begin and end abruptly.
They are often in a variety of shapes.
Richard Evans, Wales

Almost certainly a meteor fragmenting in the upper atmosphere. If it
was sunlight off a contrail why does it end so abruptly? I work
in Heathrow and see thousands of contrails a day, and never seen
one like this before.
Dave Barlow, UK

Its Geoff Hoon's reputation going down in flames!
Paul Attard, UK

It's quite obviously a large meteor - but judging by the number that
have been hitting us in the past few days, I hope Nasa are looking
for next Harry Stamper! (Bruce Willis in Armageddon)
Brian P James, UK

As a Frenchman, I would say it's an Alien space ship who could not
understand the orders - given in Welsh - to slow down as they were
approaching Earth!
Eric, France


Jonathan Shanklin

Dear Benny,

You will need to have a very big pair of binoculars to locate
comet Encke on October 25. It is unlikely to be brighter than
11th magnitude.


Jonathan Shanklin
(Director BAA & SPA Comet Sections)
British Antarctic Survey, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, England

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