Lightning induced Schumann Resonance may help divine exoplanets

From the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Science nugget: Lightning signature could help reveal the solar system’s origins

Lightning lights up the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during thunderstorms on Monday, Sept. 27, 2010. Credit: Tom Moler

Every second, lightning flashes some 50 times on Earth. Together these discharges coalesce and get stronger, creating electromagnetic waves circling around Earth, to create a beating pulse between the ground and the lower ionosphere, about 60 miles up in the atmosphere. This electromagnetic signature, known as Schumann Resonance, had only been observed from Earth’s surface until, in 2011, scientists discovered they could also detect it using NASA’s Vector Electric Field Instrument (VEFI) aboard the U.S. Air Force’s Communications/Navigation Outage Forecast System (C/NOFS) satellite.

In a paper published on May 1 in The Astrophysical Journal, researchers describe how this new technique could be used to study other planets in the solar system as well, and even shed light on how the solar system formed.

“The frequency of Schumann Resonance depends not only on the size of the planet but on what kinds of atoms and molecules exist in the atmosphere because they change the electrical conductivity,” says Fernando Simoes, the first author on this paper and a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “So we could use this technique remotely, say from about 600 miles above a planet’s surface, to look at how much water, methane and ammonia is there.”

Water, methane and ammonia are collectively referred to as “volatiles” and the fact that there are different amounts on different planets is a tantalizing clue to the way the planets formed. Determining the composition of a planet’s atmosphere can be done with a handful of other techniques – techniques that are quite accurate, but can only measure specific regions. By looking at the Schumann Resonance, however, one can get information about the global density of, say, water around the entire planet. Simoes and his colleagues believe that combining this technique with other instruments on a spacecraft’s visit to a planet could provide a more accurate inventory of the planet’s atmosphere.

“And if we can get a better sense of the abundance of these kinds of atoms in the outer planets,” says Simoes, “We would know more about the abundance in the original nebula from which the solar system evolved.”

Accurate descriptions of planetary atmospheres might also help shed light on how the evolution of the solar system left the outer planets with a high percentage of volatiles, but not the inner planets.

Detecting Schumann Resonance from above still requires the instruments to be fairly close to the planet, so this technique couldn’t be used to investigate from afar the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system. Instead, scientists imagine something much more dramatic. After a spacecraft is finished observing a planet, it could continue to detect Schumann resonance as it begins its death dive into the atmosphere. During the process of self-destruction, the spacecraft would still provide valuable scientific data until the very last minute of its existence.

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46 thoughts on “Lightning induced Schumann Resonance may help divine exoplanets

  1. Maybe the Schumann Resonance can be cryptoanalyzed, just in case it holds messages like “Help! How do I get rid of this carbon-based virus!”

  2. I have sometimes wondered if anyone has ever totaled up the amount of radiant energy which leaves the atmosphere by means of lightning. I’ve watched some furious lightning storms at the tops of clouds out the window of a plane which people on the ground cannot even see. And, the light emitted is in the high energy region of the visible spectrum and well beyond, so each photon is carrying away a lot (orders of magnitude) more energy than an IR photon.

  3. What in the %#%$#%$#^$%^ is this fanatic love of exoplanets? They’re all beyond the ‘horizon’ of possible travel or communication, so for all practical purposes they’re pure fiction. Mere theories. We will never reach them. Even if their inhabitants spoke English, we’d never be able to converse with them by radio.

    [SNIP: Sorry, Polistra, you may be right but this could derail the thread. Let’s not go there, OK? -REP]

  4. SNIP: Sorry, Polistra, you may be right but this could derail the thread. Let’s not go there, OK? -REP]

    Besides which the article specifically said that this method was for use in our solar system and was not suitable for studying exoplanets.

  5. Fascinating article, but don’t you need to amend the title ? In the final paragraph it explains that this technique cannot be used to study extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, at least not until we actually reach other solar systems !

  6. Bloke down the pub says:
    May 5, 2012 at 2:47 am
    SNIP: Sorry, Polistra, you may be right but this could derail the thread. Let’s not go there, OK? -REP]

    Besides which the article specifically said that this method was for use in our solar system and was not suitable for studying exoplanets.

    Yeah, I was a bit bemused by that. Maybe a thread title change might avoid confusion?

  7. @polistra – the love of exoplanets is down to the fact that they fire the imagination. How wonderful is it to imagine that one day humankind may set foot on another earth-like world in a different solar system than our own?

    And I really don’t agree that they’re all beyond the horizon of possible travel – even if ftl travel may never be possible, the concept of a colony spacecraft that travelled for hundreds of years to reach its destination is really not that far fetched.

  8. Simon Wood (@smimon) says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:56 am
    “And I really don’t agree that they’re all beyond the horizon of possible travel – even if ftl travel may never be possible, the concept of a colony spacecraft that travelled for hundreds of years to reach its destination is really not that far fetched.”

    You would first have to find a way of preventing the colonists’ children from becoming treehuggers and occupiers lest they decide midway that whatever their source of power on the way is – I would assume nuclear – is too dangerous and destructive for the universe and they would start building solar panels in the middle of an interstellar void. And solar wind turbines.
    Or Casimir force collectors.

  9. Bart says:
    May 5, 2012 at 2:10 am

    I have sometimes wondered if anyone has ever totaled up the amount of radiant energy which leaves the atmosphere by means of lightning…

    Good point. I’ve been wondering about it myself. The radiative energy exchange spawned by a trace gas, we are led to believe, trumps this massive, ongoing exchange of energy between our planet and atmosphere – 50 strokes a second – and has a dominant role in determining climate, while lightning strikes are considered to be merely an effect of the weather, and presumably, a minor player.

    Big role in climate for the trace gas, but what about the juice?

  10. A couple of interesting nuggets maybe, the rest suitable for the National Inquirer. After someone models all myriad of variables impacting the Schumann Resonance on this planet, we verify the model how ? Send a probe to Jupiter you say ?
    Make work programs for PHDs.

  11. The presence of hydrocarbons on other planets does call into question the supposed origin of “fossil fuels”.

  12. Fascinating and enjoyable article. Hope this isn’t off topic:
    I have often wondered about another [potential] role of lightning on the history of humans on this planet. If the use of fire was instrumental in “The Ascent of Man” then might humans have evolved in locations where lightning strikes frequently caused fires?
    Looking at the lightning-strike map here: http://geology.com/articles/lightning-map.shtml shows central Africa to be the best place.

    Speculative, yes, but interesting to think about. Perhaps other people already have.

  13. Same question as Jakehig. If the exoplanets are divine, surely they don’t need help.

  14. Or of course you could put an IR spectroscope on an orbiting probe and get a detailed global survey of volatiles that way. Also, the equipment would be huge: the coiI I used to use to detect the magnetic component of VLF waves was almost too big to lift, and for ELF frequencies I imagine it would be bigger still.
    On the other hand, Ap.J. doesn’t publish nonsense, so the original paper may make more sense than the release.

  15. Simon Wood (@smimon) says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:56 am
    And I really don’t agree that they’re all beyond the horizon of possible travel

    A 1 g spacecraft can visit the edges of the observable universe – 14 billion light years – within a single human lifetime due to the effects of time dilation. No time warp is required. To the crew aboard the spacecraft, the 1 g acceleration would be identical to the gravity we feel on earth.

    So, to suggest inter galactic space travel is impossible – well it just isn’t so. Relativity shows us that distance is not an obstacle. The obstacle is energy, but even in the vacuum of space there is enough matter to support a fusion engine capable of 1 g constant acceleration.

    There are formidable engineering problems to be sure. But impossible – not by a long shot – even with our limited knowledge. No science fiction is required.

  16. In case anyone objects to an engine capable of 1 g constant acceleration. From the point of view of an observer on earth, 1 g constant acceleration is impossible, because it would require infinite energy. From earth it appears as though the ships mass increases infinitely as it approaches light speed. This is an illusion resulting from the limited speed of light and time dilation.

    On board the ship there is no such effect. Relativity tells us that all reference frames are equivalent, thus the mass of the ship accelerating at 1 g must always remain the same as if it was sitting on the surface of the earth in 1 g gravity, regardless of what might be observed from outside the ship.

  17. I am always greatly amused by those who believe in Interstellar travel.
    Firstly there’s the small matter of Einstein’s E = MC2…which if you shuffle it around firmly states that when propelling M….the closer you get to C, the more E you require! (Do let me know when someone disproves this)
    But there are other ‘minor’ details, humans returning from the Space Station after a few weeks, require months of physiotherapy to restore their muscle and bone condition…imagine what the tribe of ‘humans’ would look like after a say 50,000 year journey in a tin can!
    And of course let’s not forget Newton…I wonder what ‘impact’ a rock or meteorite would have on our Ark as it boldly went at (its unobtainable) near light velocity? A bit like a rifle bullet through a car I would imagine!
    I suspect that a generation brought up on Star Trek and Star Wars and the X Files has drifted away somewhat from the reality of Science and Engineering…the flip side of this optimism is the doomster faith of the Green Catastrophists…ie the myth, magic and superstition that the Warmist scaremongers have harnessed so successfully.

    I’m with Stevie Wonder on this one.
    ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand then you suffer.
    Superstition aint the way!’

    This is WUWT. Let’s stick to Science.

  18. Relativity tells us that all reference frames are equivalent…

    I thought that all non-accelerating reference frames were equivalent, although I admit it was a long time ago that I was at all involved in this sort of stuff (but it wasn’t on a world far, far away…). By definition, the reference frame of the ship is accelerating.

  19. Dean Cardno says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm
    I thought that all non-accelerating reference frames were equivalent,

    All 1 g reference frames are equivalent. Thus the energy to maintain 1 g acceleration remains the same aboard the ship as it does to lift off from earth. It is only from outside the reference frame that the mass of the ship appears to increase as its speed appears to approach the speed of light.

    Thus if we try and accelerate particles to the speed of light, from our reference frame their mass increases infinitely as they approach the speed of light. However, if you are riding on the particle that is not what you observe.

  20. Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm
    I am always greatly amused by those who believe in Interstellar travel.
    Firstly there’s the small matter of Einstein’s E = MC2…which if you shuffle it around firmly states that when propelling M….the closer you get to C, the more E you require! (Do let me know when someone disproves this)

    Near-lightspeed starships are quite not likely in the near or relatively foreseeable future, short of really convenient breakthroughs, not so much even from physics as from engineering (heat dissipation and power handling limits of engine designs) and economics (at least short of the likes of self-replicating space factories). Near-lightspeed is not needed, though.

    Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm
    But there are other ‘minor’ details, humans returning from the Space Station after a few weeks, require months of physiotherapy to restore their muscle and bone condition…imagine what the tribe of ‘humans’ would look like after a say 50,000 year journey in a tin can!

    Present public perspectives on spaceflight are skewed by current launch vehicles being the equivalent of an alternate history where the only automobiles were made mostly of super-expensive solid gold and either broke down after a single drive (with all of the hardware thrown away) or else took months of refurbishment by a standing army of personnel before being ready to use again (Space Shuttle analogy). From that perspective, few inhabitants of that imaginary timeline could guess the true potential of automobile transportation. Such as the effects of weightlessness being a problem for space flight in general is only an indirect result of current launch costs on the order of 1000 times propellant costs (propellant mostly liquid oxygen costing cents per pound but hardware costs closer to its weight in gold). Without so extreme mass constraints, large spacestations with part-time exposure to artificial gravity through rotation would be readily doable.

    Such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarTram , http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/searagon.htm , http://neofuel.com/index_neofuel.html , etc. would be among different scenarios. For instance, an ambitious historical NASA study, a conceptual 10000-person spacestation, envisioned deployment of a lunar mass driver launching 600 times its own mass in lunar material over the years ( http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/75SummerStudy/Table_of_Contents1.html ).

    However, while a number of individuals at NASA have supported those, the agency as a whole under Congressional allocation of funding responds to the expectations of the public, and most of the public has thought of manned spaceflight as kind of like a sport of touching bases, getting “a man” somewhere (Moon, Mars, etc.), whatever the cost per pound, rather than first focusing on solving the cardinal problem of being able to amortize multi-billion-dollar expenses over thousands of tons instead of over a few tons.

    Only a society which was truly a space civilization first within the solar system, as in millions of people living in space already, could really well contemplate interstellar travel. At that point, though, interstellar travel is quite physically possible. The stars would be reachable by nuclear pulse propulsion with a few decades of transit time, or longer if saving money in some ways, a phrase which includes all from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_%28nuclear_propulsion%29 to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Longshot among others. Beamed propulsion is also possible, although more total hardware is involved per terajoule of energy delivered.

    Decades to centuries would sound excessively long from current human perspectives, but there are scenarios where such could feel to our intellectual descendants no longer than several years feels to us (and in the Age of Sail, some exploration voyages lasted years). One such scenario is suspended animation; while current R&D with the recent hydrogen sulfide induced-hibernation principle is aimed at brief periods for surgery, the possibility of future advancement eventually allowing more can not be ruled out. Another would be transhumanism in general, although that would get into matters way off topic.

    Fundamentally, though, much as someone of the 17th century could not very well predict 21st-century technology and would probably vastly underestimate our capabilities, so too would it be very premature yet to dismiss interstellar travel as a possibility in the distant future. For example, for economics, even self-replicating factories in the solar system dropping the ratio of human labor to output relatively towards zero are not necessarily forever impossible. Usually predictions of technological advancement are over-optimistic in the short-term (underestimating political factors and collective foolishness) while under-optimistic in the long-term.

    Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm
    And of course let’s not forget Newton…I wonder what ‘impact’ a rock or meteorite would have on our Ark as it boldly went at (its unobtainable) near light velocity? A bit like a rifle bullet through a car I would imagine!

    Fortunately, interstellar space is astronomically empty, enough to not be a show-stopper for the preceding, mainly like a mild number of hydrogen atoms per cubic meter. There are some grains of dust which would not be detected in advance to avoid or destroy, but whipple shields can work thanks to their rarity. For a given velocity of travel, there would be more risk within the solar system itself, but any vessels would not need to travel as fast when first starting out.

    Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm
    I suspect that a generation brought up on Star Trek and Star Wars and the X Files has drifted away somewhat from the reality of Science and Engineering…the flip side of this optimism is the doomster faith of the Green Catastrophists…ie the myth, magic and superstition that the Warmist scaremongers have harnessed so successfully.

    I must disagree there. Inclinations reinforcing the rise of the CAGW movement are indirectly part of how, when not seeing a positive future for mankind, many people drift towards dystopias and a vision associated with some environmentalists of stagnation and decline for humanity (going back to the past with more wild animals and fewer humans but not spreading life throughout the solar system and beyond). I used to read books published in the 1950s. They tended to have a more positive, pro-technology, pro-industry, pro-human-advancement mindset. In the uncertain but possible event of a solar Grand Minimum developing in the future with another LIA starting next decade, getting back into a good old man vs. nature (not blameable on humans) struggle and a rise of skepticism towards the groups associated with the CAGW movement could benefit mankind some.

  21. I think we should master inner space before we ship our poorly controlled behaviors off this planet.

  22. Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm
    I am always greatly amused by those who believe in Interstellar travel.
    Firstly there’s the small matter of Einstein’s E = MC2…which if you shuffle it around firmly states that when propelling M….the closer you get to C, the more E you require! (Do let me know when someone disproves this)
    You missed little bit, the lorentz transformation. Actual Energy is E=(1/(sqrt(1-(v/c)^2)))*m*c^2
     
    Speaking of amused. I’m always amused that the various proposals for studies of the planets always mention that it might shed light on how the solar system was formed.

  23. Even if FTL or some other means were developed to travel to the stars, I feel very few would be willing to go. Going from a 40hr work with all the tech ‘toys’ we to 80+hr work week farming (which is what needs to be set up first) more than likely with horses etc. with no TV, no internet, no Facebook, no phones (you get the picture). The only ones that I see going for a new world are those who already are at the very bottom of the economic pile-and they are the ones who could not afford to do so.

  24. Henry Clark;

    Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm
    “And of course let’s not forget Newton…I wonder what ‘impact’ a rock or meteorite would have on our Ark as it boldly went at (its unobtainable) near light velocity? A bit like a rifle bullet through a car I would imagine!”

    Fortunately, interstellar space is astronomically empty, enough to not be a show-stopper for the preceding, mainly like a mild number of hydrogen atoms per cubic meter. There are some grains of dust which would not be detected in advance to avoid or destroy, but whipple shields can work thanks to their rarity. For a given velocity of travel, there would be more risk within the solar system itself, but any vessels would not need to travel as fast when first starting out.

    Don’t forget the Pellegino’s Pancakes: small failed stars with dust/debris disks, 10X as common as even brown dwarfs, invisible or ultra dim. Hard to see in time to dodge at relativistic speeds (or even small fractions of C). !! ;(

  25. Henry Clark (May 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm) is exactly right: The evolution of a space-faring civilization depends entirely on developing inexpensive means of getting out of Earth’s gravity well and into orbit. He is also correct in identifying the pervasive pessimism that has overtaken Western societies as the primary impediment to such development.

    Whatever happened to the ideal of Progress? It has been replaced with fear, apprehension, and retrenchment, typified by an obsession with ‘sustainability’, the most depressing word in the English language.

    /Mr Lynn

  26. Back to the present, and today’s science…

    What that global 50 Hz electromagnetic Schumann Resonance might be doing remains a tantalizing side topic to this research. Perhaps this “beating pulse between the ground and the lower ionosphere” has some effect that has not been appreciated.

  27. http://www.convertalot.com/relativistic_star_ship_calculator.html

    Re checking my numbers, I see that a space ship with 1 g acceleration, if it accelerates for 23 years, then decelerates for 23 years, can voyage to the edge of the the observable universe – some 14 billion light years away, well within a human lifetime.

    Due to time dilation and length contraction, midway into the voyage when we begin our deceleration, the 14 billion light year distance will appear to have shortened in the direction of travel to less than 46 light years. Without any need for warp drives or science fiction. When we arrive, we will have aged 46 years, but people on earth will have aged more than 14 billion years. As the saying goes, you can never go back home.

    What has been missing since the time of the moon landing is the spirit of adventure. Human beings do best with a goal to achieve. However, for the last 30 years, we have become self-absorbed in looking inwards. The argument being we have have problems here at home, they should get priority. By that logic Columbus would have stayed home.

  28. Mr Lynn: Very much agreed.

    Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm
    Henry…may ‘The Force’ remain with you!

    Thanks … I think. ;)

  29. mr.artday says:
    May 5, 2012 at 8:14 pm
    I think we should master inner space before we ship our poorly controlled behaviors off this planet.

    I don’t know exactly what you personally have in mind, as what mastery of inner space would mean to different people differs. However, while we might agree on some individual aspects being desirable, spending on space is not likely to be a major barrier to those. Next to nobody seems to say, for instance, “if we stop government spending on art and aesthetic architecture for a while or indefinitely, we can much better solve all of our other terrestrial problems first,” although the equivalent with reference to space programs is more common. Yet annual spending on space launch is only on the order of 1/10000th of world GDP, less than on cosmetics (while even current spending differently applied, let alone a few times it, would make a huge difference for progress in spaceflight).

    Also, overall, what I would consider a favorable state of public psychology is helped and not harmed by a frontier, growth, and expansion. One of the best hopes for mankind would be if some get off this planet, if independent societies develop, before there is too much homogenization of societal and enviropolitical views in the direction that too many are heading (like drivers of the CAGW movement highlight). At least a lot of those who would not like people preemptively escaping from what they would consider a hypothetical future perfect closed society on Earth (e.g. built up over time by increasingly restrictive hypothetical international treaties and beyond) have in mind what to me would be more a dystopia than a perfect society.

  30. Brian H says:
    May 6, 2012 at 4:07 am
    Don’t forget the Pellegino’s Pancakes: small failed stars with dust/debris disks, 10X as common as even brown dwarfs, invisible or ultra dim. Hard to see in time to dodge at relativistic speeds (or even small fractions of C). !! ;(

    Short of greater utilization, related objects might serve as an objective for someday an unmanned scientific probe if not more. Although estimates differ by a number of orders of magnitude, a recent study even estimated as high as 100,000 times as many rogue planets as stars ( http://www.space.com/14667-nomad-alien-planets-wandering-galaxy.html ). If so and if future space telescopes advanced enough to detect some, there statistically might be some of those many times closer than Alpha Centauri.

  31. Mr Lynn says:
    May 6, 2012 at 6:49 am
    Whatever happened to the ideal of Progress? It has been replaced with fear, apprehension, and retrenchment, typified by an obsession with ‘sustainability’, the most depressing word in the English language.
    ====
    Exactly. “Sustainability” is a utopian concept. It implies a perfection that can never be achieve. As a result we overlook “good”. Perfection is the enemy of good.

    Modern society has made huge strides in improving efficiency and thereby reducing waste. As a result we have achieved a standard of living never before available to so many people. Should we now throw this away because it is not perfect? Will the replacement somehow be magically better?

    I found it interesting to read that the US without Kyoto or carbon trading, has achieved the exact same CO2 reduction as the EU with Kyoto and carbon trading. In other words, Kyoto and carbon trading have had no effect on CO2 production.

    What has led to CO2 reduction in the US is invention. Natural gas fracking has resulted in a reduction in Co2 as power plants switch to cheap gas. A solution completely unpredicted by Climate Science and the IPCC. So much for the experts in their ivory towers, cut off from the real world.

  32. Charles Gerard Nelson says:
    May 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm
    “And of course let’s not forget Newton…I wonder what ‘impact’ a rock or meteorite would have on our Ark as it boldly went at (its unobtainable) near light velocity?

    Relativity tells us that there is no “zero” reference frame. No aether to determine how fast we are moving.

    Once you turn the engines off, a ship moving at near light speed relative to us is standing still in its own reference frame. Everything aboard the ship including mass and acceleration and time behaves as though the ship was standing still. Once you turn the engines back on the ship will continue to see itself accelerate as though it started from rest.

    Light speed is only a barrier to observation. It is not a barrier to travel due to the combined effects of time dilation and length contraction. The more you accelerate, the shorter the time it takes to travel, without limit. Thus you can travel 14 billion light years in 46 years at 1 g acceleration, while to the observer on earth, the trip will take you 14+ billion years.

    A ship traveling at 1 g constant acceleration takes 1.58 ship years to travel 1.6 light years earth relative. In Star Trek terms it has achieved warp speed. A trip to Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years distant would take 2.3 years. A trip across the observable universe, 14 billion light year would take 46 years. This is effectively 300 million times the speed of light.

  33. Speaking of accelerating reference frames, has anyone read “Tau Zero” by the great Poul Anderson.

  34. Ferd,
    Actually, Columbus WOULD have stayed home save for the largess of the king and queen, and so like most of our modern researchers, he was conducting his investigations on someone else’s nickel.

  35. DesertYote says:
    May 6, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Speaking of accelerating reference frames, has anyone read “Tau Zero” by the great Poul Anderson.
    ____________________________
    A long time ago. I think I still have it.

  36. And so a potentially interesting subject devolves into a discussion of SF. Heck, why not put thorium reactors on your space ships?

  37. Probability says that the Earth will eventually sustain a cleansing event, be it an impact, solar flare, nearby supernova, simply drowning in its own excrement or what have you. Seems that an intelligent species would be looking into ways in which it might survive such an event. That is, if it were an intelligent species.

  38. Gail Combs says:
    May 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm
    DesertYote says:
    May 6, 2012 at 11:32 am

    ‘Speaking of accelerating reference frames, has anyone read “Tau Zero” by the great Poul Anderson.
    ____________________________
    A long time ago. I think I still have it.”

    Yes, also, and I still have it as well.

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