NASA Wants Your Help Designing a Venus Rover Concept


Venus rover concept
An illustration of a concept for a possible wind-powered Venus rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, under a grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, is running a public challenge to develop an obstacle avoidance sensor for a possible future Venus rover. The “Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover” challenge is seeking the public’s designs for a sensor that could be incorporated into the design concept.

Venus is an extreme world. With a surface temperature in excess of 840 degrees Fahrenheit and a surface pressure 90 times that of Earth, Venus can turn lead into a puddle and crush a nuclear-powered submarine with ease. While many missions have visited our sister planet, only about a dozen have made contact with the surface of Venus before quickly succumbing to the oppressive heat and pressure.

The last spacecraft to touch the planet’s surface, the Soviet Vega 2, landed in 1985. Now, engineers and scientists at JPL are studying mission designs that can survive the hellish landscape.

“Earth and Venus are basically sibling planets, but Venus took a turn at one point and became inhospitable to life as we know it,” said Jonathan Sauder, a senior mechatronics engineer at JPL and principal investigator for the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) concept. “By getting on the ground and exploring Venus, we can understand what caused Earth and Venus to diverge on wildly different paths and can explore a foreign world right in our own backyard.”

Exploring and studying different geologic units across the surface of Venus could help us understand the planet’s evolution, and could contribute to a better understanding of Earth’s climate.

Powered by wind, AREE is intended to spend months, not minutes, exploring the Venus landscape. AREE could collect valuable, long-term longitudinal scientific data. As the rover explores the planet, it must also detect obstacles in its path, such as rocks, crevices and steep terrain. And NASA is crowdsourcing help for that sensor design. The challenge’s winning sensor will be incorporated into the rover concept and could potentially one day be the mechanism by which a rover detects and navigates around obstructions.

The difficulty of this challenge is in designing a sensor that does not rely on electronic systems. Current state-of-the-art electronics fail at just over 250 degrees Fahrenheit and would easily succumb to the extreme Venus environment. That is why NASA is turning to the global community of innovators and inventors for a solution.

“This is an exciting opportunity for the public to design a component that could one day end up on another celestial body,” said Ryon Stewart, challenge coordinator for the NASA Tournament Lab at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “NASA recognizes that good ideas can come from anywhere and that prize competitions are a great way to engage the public’s interest and ingenuity and make space exploration possible for everyone.”

Participants will have an opportunity to win a first-place prize of $15,000. Second place wins $10,000; and third place, $5,000. JPL is working with the NASA Tournament Lab to execute the challenge on the heroX crowdsourcing platform. Submissions will be accepted through May 29, 2020.

“When faced with navigating one of the most challenging terrestrial environments in the solar system, we need to think outside the box,” Sauder said. “That is why we need the creativity of makers and garage inventors to help solve this challenge.”

For more information about the challenge and how to enter, visit:

AREE is an early-stage research study funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). NIAC is a visionary and far-reaching aerospace program, one that has the potential to create breakthrough technologies for possible future space missions; however, such early-stage technology developments may never become actual NASA missions.

NASA Tournament Lab is part of NASA’s Prizes and Challenges program within STMD. The program supports the use of public competitions and crowdsourcing as tools to advance NASA R&D and other mission needs.

Learn more about opportunities to participate in your space program:

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Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 6:39 am

Asking for something that doesn’t exist to operate at 850 F is similar to asking for ways in which Wind and solar can exclusively power an advanced, technology based economy.

Wishful thinking is what powers the climate scam, and now too for operating an autonomous rover on Venus’s surface for an extended period.

Apparently all NASA has to do is turn a bunch of Liberal Arts majors loose on the project, throw in maybe some Hollywood CGI expertise, and they can solve this problem with model simulations. Make a cool movie to release on their website and call it solved.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 6:51 am

And even better, NASA already has an institute dedicated to creating and publishing science fiction. Gavin’s crack teams of modellers no doubt could solve this animation problem with some cool simulations on their computers. They already have an impressive resume and track record producing SciFy hits.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 6:59 am

On a similar note, if they can get that Heisenberg Compensator working they won’t even have to use nasty, polluting chemical rocket motors. They can just get Scotty to beam the rover down, and add that to the Venus rover mission CGI simulation.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 8:21 am

Land sailing is not new, but it has some real imitations, control and navigation being two huge ones. Land sailing is usually conducted on huge open flat areas with few obstacles because.
Sail powered vehicles are able to “point” slightly into the wind to “tack” forward. About the best hey can do is a 45° AOA (angle of attack) into the wind. but this needs to be monitored closely . While on open flat terrain (like open water) there are few obstacles to deter their forward progress. Bumps and trenches present far more issues for rolling vehicles than waves do for boats.

An electric vehicle which can deploy (and stow) its energy collection device might have better luck.
However, I see potential for some truly bizarre and spectacular failures.

John Tillman
Reply to  Rocketscientist
February 22, 2020 1:12 pm

NASA is working on heat, pressure and corrosion-resistant microchips:

Joe D
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 8:49 am

O’Byran said “Asking for something that doesn’t exist to operate at 850 F …”
There have already been some proposed solutions. For example, if an orbital satellite can send radar signals, it would be possible to design a wind-speed indicator that will reflect that radar in such a way, that the satellite can sense a varaition in the reflections. Similarly, a bi-metal temperature signal may be made to vary the frequency of a resinator, so that the strenth of a reflected signal will vary based on the frequency sent, and the temperature.

Movement may be viable, and some sort of bump-and-go, as well. But, I have doubts that it can truely navigate a meaninful distance. It wold be better to spend the weight that might be put onto a navigation system on making multiple probes to land, and just drop them over a larger area.

But, in the end, most stuff needs electronics to work. So, I suspect that something floating in the dense atmosphere would be the way to go. Like using multiple, fairly light weight landers, the floaters could be designed with a similar goal of being fairly simple, and light weight. Perhaps sent as a complement to the landers.

A dense atmosphere may be an advantage to landing. Simply connect a parashoot to the lander, and let it drop to the ground. Perhaps a melt-able detachment method would serve to eventually cause the parashoot to detach, to avoid constantly dragging the lander.

Joe D
Reply to  Joe D
February 22, 2020 8:56 am

To expand on non-electronic sensors that vary their reflection of a radar signal;
Perhaps something like a bi-metal thermometer sensor can be used to detect chemicals. Humidity sensors on Earth commonly make use of the tendency for some materials to lengthen or shorten based on how much water it has absorbed. If materials can be selective about which chemicals it absorbs, then you have chemical sensors that are not electronic.

A simple barometer is non-electronic. If it is a cylinder with material inside that can expand/compress , then you have another instrument that can vary its reflection of a radar singnal.

Reply to  Joe D
February 22, 2020 10:28 am

How will the signals from the sensors be relayed to
the on-board driver controls, to earth or
an orbiting master relay station?
How will an orbital control satellite send commands to the
rover if electronics are off the board? ( Pun intended. )
It looks like normal circuity is not part of the solution.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Joe D
February 22, 2020 9:04 am

They aren’t asking for an orbiter or a flying platform high above the surface that stays in the CO2-sulfur clouds at some comfortable pressure and temp. They are asking for something that intelligently moves and navigates around on a 850 F surface under 1400 psi pressure. Laughable.
My point is they also might as well put up a prize for Heisenberg Compensator.

They guy or gal who comes up with the tech that does NOT exist today will be so fabulously wealthy this prize offered is a joke.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Joe D
February 22, 2020 9:33 am


Is that, like, a pine tree?

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 8:52 am

The nature of NASA’s missions are for “things that do not exist … yet”. NASA routinely asks for ideas for mission components, as NASA rarely (if ever actually) invents anything.

The general public seems to have forgotten the last A in NASA stands for Administration. While NASA does maintain some very nice launch facilities and testing laboratories, NASA not design rockets nor satellites, they administer programs and hire contractors to invent machines and devices to accomplish these missions.

True, Hollywood has over exaggerated the capabilities by conveniently omitting most of physics, but I spent the last 38 years designing just these very types of “things that do not exist … yet” for NASA.
Sometimes we run into issues and need new materials which will withstand extreme environments or forces, and “enabling technology” programs will be devised. This is the way rocket science is conducted.
However, it should be noted that rocket science is easy, but rocket engineering is bitch!

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Rocketscientist
February 22, 2020 9:35 am

Asking an 19th Century scientist-engineer to make a nuclear reactor power source is basically what NASA has here. The basic science to do what is asked doesn’t exist, if it ever will.

When Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, he only imagined an electrically powered submarine, which itself was fantastical science fiction in 1880. Of course, he knew of electricity, motors, and batteries in 1880, but he couldn’t have imagined a nuclear powered sub. He got his inspiration for the Nautilus (his fictional sub) from a French sub powered by a compressed air driven engine built in 1860’s. Which was a very short range machine designed to ram wooden hull ships below their waterline.

JFK’s 1961 challenge to go to Moon inside a decade his advisors had told him was feasible with the state of science in 1960… if the money was put to it. Conceptually all the basic science to do that existed. Many Hard Engineering problems had to be solved of course. Guidance computers had to be designed tested and built. Rocket motor tech was evolving. A lunar lander that could be maneuvered in airless 1/6 gravity was feasible.

Einstein’s letter to FDR to start work on a nuclear bomb was based on the very real fission physics understood by only a handful of men at the time. But from the science and their lab experiences, they knew it was entirely feasible.

You’re mistaking fundamental lack of science with engineering problems.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 12:01 pm

Maybe they should send John Glenn’s coffin to justify their budget. Try that gimmick.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 12:22 pm

Maybe they could just equip the thing with a nuclear-powered air conditioner.

Reply to  Rocketscientist
February 22, 2020 10:00 am

Not that rocket science isn’t engrossing. A favorite book of mine is “Ignition!”, which details the early days of rocket chemistry in humorous detail.

Jim Whelan
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 9:12 am

That rover picture with the “wind turbine” on top is just the modern day equivalent of the 1930’s Buck Rogers spaceships filled with pipes and valves and pressure gauges like a steam plant.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
February 22, 2020 9:46 am

Easy – remember the original “mad Max” movie, with a guy tied to the front to the vehicle?

Pick a climate alarmist of your choice – any one will do – put him in a space suit and strap him at bumper level to the front of the rover vehicle – that should work.

Alternatively, use a whole bunch of them for redundancy, in case one wears out. After all, many of these alarmists are really neo-Malthusians – problems seeking solutions. Voilà!

February 22, 2020 6:45 am

The prize money seems pretty low for what is being requested. (Recognition is great, cash is better.)

“Earth and Venus are basically sibling planets,” Reminds me of a person I knew who swore a guy six years older than her was actually her twin and that someone had told her this so it must be true. She did have a twin also given up for adoption, but the refusal to believe that it was impossible to be the person she thought it was never really mattered. The complete insanity of “sibling planets” or “sister planets” infects so much of CAGW. Many times CAGW looks like the “Alice in Wonderland” world.

Curious George
Reply to  Sheri
February 22, 2020 11:45 am

“Venus took a turn at one point and became inhospitable to life.” It happened on Friday the 13th, a day which is considered cursed ever since.

Reply to  Sheri
February 22, 2020 4:13 pm

“By getting on the ground and exploring Venus, we can understand what caused Earth and Venus to diverge on wildly different paths …”

No we can’t. We’ll never understand. This is a colossal waste of time and money.

John Tillman
Reply to  brians356
February 23, 2020 7:35 am

We already know that its rotation rate accounts for the differences. Alarmists want to blame CO2, even with a pure N2 atmosphere, Venus would be hot. Probably hotter, as more sunlight would get through without the sulfurous clouds.

John Tillman
Reply to  John Tillman
February 23, 2020 7:37 am

Left out “but” before “even”.

February 22, 2020 6:55 am

Let’s see… Venus at the surface is about 900F with a pressure about 1,350 psi… I recommend a sealed transparent sphere of some material that can withstand those two, because there’s no way you’re going to get any seal to withstand them. A robot could roll around on the inside to move the rover, you could call it the “Hamster ball.”

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  ScienceABC123
February 22, 2020 7:10 am

Quartz glass has a melting temp of about 1650 °C (3000 °F) but its thermal conductivity is high and would be a killer for the innards.

Reply to  ScienceABC123
February 22, 2020 7:30 am

“A robot could roll around on the inside to move the rover, you could call it the “Hamster ball.”

How would you cool down the hamster?

Reply to  Glenn
February 22, 2020 8:31 am

By means heat rejection from the internal “robot” through the working fluid within the sphere to its external surface. (The same way your car cools it interior.) A nice reflective sphere would reduce radiation absorption, while a thermal control system provides heat rejection or accumulation.

The robot will necessarily need to survive in the ambient climate while the rover could handle daily weather and temperature variations.
They had better plan for a more reliable back-up power system than wind.

Reply to  Rocketscientist
February 22, 2020 10:22 am

Car air conditioners do not move thermal energy through an enclosed sphere.
The energy requirements would have to be enormous, regardless of and relational to the size of the sphere. Also don’t forget that the power plant would create additional heat that would require removal. And that’s assuming a sphere with such characteristics is even possible.
Sounds to me like you’ve run afoul of thermodynamics.

Reply to  Glenn
February 22, 2020 11:08 am

Amen! There is no way a closed system will be able to cool itself by rejecting heat to the environment unless it is hotter than the surroundings.
Any probe will be eventually be destroyed by the Venusian atmosphere. I am interested in their definition of duration of the longitudinal study.

John McClure
Reply to  ScienceABC123
February 22, 2020 8:13 am

Why not avoid the issue by using a drone?

Their rover looks like somethings built with logos.

Reply to  ScienceABC123
February 22, 2020 8:26 am

NASA: we have a prize winner!!!

February 22, 2020 6:57 am

“Exploring and studying different geologic units across the surface of Venus could help us understand the planet’s evolution, and could contribute to a better understanding of Earth’s climate”

Is there any enterprise, project, or goal of us humans that does not involve climate change?

Rich Davis
Reply to  chaamjamal
February 22, 2020 9:20 am

No, sir. No, there is not.

I’m sure that it doesn’t cause the CC religion believers any concern at all that merely traveling over the surface and possibly sending back some pictures has little or no prospect of revealing anything to explain the evolution of the planet or how it took a bad turn eons ago. But maybe they expect to roll past some ancient Venusian SUVs?

All that matters is that we believe that earth is poised to become the next Venus, if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels and get more socialism. The hellscape photos will be marvelous climate porn for the Grrrreta fans.

Reply to  Rich Davis
February 22, 2020 10:53 am

Yeah, while if all proven reserves of fossil fuels burned up tomorrow, we would would reach only 735 ppm. That’s far from Venusian.

February 22, 2020 7:21 am

Worth giving it a shot. It beats falling off the edge of the flat earth.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Olen
February 22, 2020 8:49 am

It’s turtles. Turtles all the way down.

John Tillman
February 22, 2020 7:57 am

Why Venus is so hot isn’t a mystery. It’s because it turns so slowly and its atmosphere keeps the dark side from cooling off. The high CO2 composition of its air is less important than its density and wind speed.

Venus has probably always rotated more slowly than Earth. It might originally have turned in the same direction as most other planets, but so slowly that it eventually started rotating backwards.

The planet thus likely never had liquid water on its surface, but searching for signs of it should be the goal of a probe. Forget a long-lasting rover. Just send a lander to rocks supposed by some to be granite. That could settle the ancient water issue.

NASA modelers imagine that Venus once had oceans, since lost to a moist runaway GHE. They also argue that its resurfacing was a one-off volcanic event, releasing the lethal CO2. Dubious. The authors do note however that if early Venus rotated even 1/16 Earth’s present rate, then it would have been too hot for water, under their pressure assumptions. Today Venus’ retrograde motion is about 243 times slower than Earth’s, but our planet used to spin even more rapidly.

Reply to  John Tillman
February 22, 2020 8:39 am

That slow rotation is what makes a Venus probe possible. The Venus Day is 243 earth days long and its spinning in the opposite direction. The article mentions the extreme high temperatures but it does not mention the extreme low temperatures from a night time (-150C) that lasts nearly 3000 hours. In essence, you can explore at night, or if you go to the poles, 3000 hours of twilight. The poles apparently have very strong wind with dense air which makes the silly looking propeller a whole lot less silly.

Venus exploration would be an interesting materials challenge. It’s atmosphere is very corrosive so you’d be looking at using very corrosion resistant materials like titanium, ceramics and perhaps other refractory metals. The atmosphere is more than 50x more dense (67 kg/cu. m) but the gravity is slightly lower so that would require a different approach to breaking and landing. It might be possible to make metal balloons with aerogel filler and literally float it to the surface.

The batteries could be really interesting. It may be necessary to have a eutectic salt type batter to handle the temperature range. However I think it would be difficult to design something that could handle both the heat and the cold extremes and it may be necessary to choose one or the other.

John Tillman
Reply to  Sean
February 22, 2020 8:45 am

The night side of Venus is almost as hot as the day side. The poles are also hot. Venus has very little axial tilt, so its climate is “equable” from equator to poles, if that term apply to lead-melting temperature.

Mercury’s negligible atmosphere means that it cools off during its long night. Venus also has a nearly circular orbit, while Mercury’s is highly elliptical.

Curious George
Reply to  John Tillman
February 22, 2020 11:53 am

We have one data point for the temperature of the night side. It makes models sort of believable.

John Tillman
Reply to  Curious George
February 22, 2020 12:42 pm

Besides nightside surface landers and atmospheric probes, we have IR measurements from orbit, published last year:

Venus nightside surface temperature

John Tillman
Reply to  Curious George
February 22, 2020 1:02 pm

In addition to a thick atmosphere and high, super-rotating winds, heat spreads from lit to dark via the lithosphere. An hypothesis proposes that Venus has a thin lithospheric crust, letting more heat escape from the mantle. Its geology works differently from Earth’s, to be sure.

IMO however, the 121.5 days of sunshine, despite high albedo, closer to the Sun, without cooling off much during the equally long night, adequately accounts for the heat.

Venus receives at top of atmosphere twice as much solar radiation as does Earth. But its clouds reflect about 75% of this away, which is why Venus looks so bright. The dense air absorbs yet more light, such that only about 10% reaches the surface, of which just three percent directly and the rest by scattering.

This is still enough however to bake the surface, given so many Earth-months’ worth of uninterrupted insolation.

John Tillman
Reply to  Curious George
February 22, 2020 1:18 pm

NASA wants a probe that can survive 60 days, so as to last through the twilight transition from day to night.

Rover tech not needed for this, as the planet would do the moving.

John Tillman
Reply to  Curious George
February 22, 2020 1:37 pm

Venera 4, 5, 6 and 7 all landed at night, so as to transmit to Earth, and Venera 8 landed along the terminator. Venera 4 landed north of the equator, the others south.

John Tillman
Reply to  Curious George
February 22, 2020 2:53 pm

IOW, lots of disparate temperature data from the dark side of Venus.

February 22, 2020 8:23 am

Maybe they could give it a red-tipped cane and a seeing-eye dog.

Reply to  Daniel
February 22, 2020 12:59 pm

Consider the cat, and the walrus. They get information from their whiskers. If you put a wide array of whiskers, varying lengths and strengths, on your rover you can tell when you might get in trouble – and it would be mechanical. This has already been done on Earth, with curb-finding metal springs sprouting on the sides of cars.

If some of those whiskers happened to move up and down (tap tap tap like the long white cane) they could also warn of holes in the ground.

February 22, 2020 8:35 am

Wind-powered rover — must be a joke. I think it’s pretty well established that the wind-speed on Venus’ surface is near zero….

Anyway, a Venus rover prb’ly needs to be a self-winding spring-powered mechanical device made of titanium. How that’s going to transmit info back to an orbiting relay tho is a real problem…..

Reply to  beng135
February 22, 2020 8:52 am

You are so right, beng. No matter how clever you are in sensing, how do you record and transmit information without electronics? Might want to solve that one first. This looks like the sensor before the horse.

Jean Parisot
February 22, 2020 9:24 am

Why do you need an active presence on the surface?

Passive radar reflectors can handle detail mapping and seismic experiments using energy supplied from orbit. Geochemistry experiments could be devised with catalysts reactions that produce a precipitate that could be detected remotely (if not from orbit – from a flyer). I could envision a flyer that spends little time in the heat/pressure environment and does hyperspectral or even LIBS type geochemistry work. Rather than drill, you make hole explosively, if you want to see deeper layers.

I’m just not seeing what the rover is doing.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Jean Parisot
February 22, 2020 9:47 am

“I’m just not seeing what the rover is doing.”


Reply to  Jean Parisot
February 23, 2020 7:41 am

I think you’re right, Jean. An “airship” w/various sensors floating high in the atmosphere in reasonable temps/pressures is the best idea.

February 22, 2020 9:52 am

This whole thing must some kind of joke. ( That illustration obviously is ).

Even if they get the rover to rove how that hell are they going to getting any data back from it? Semaphore ?

Reply to  Greg
February 22, 2020 10:58 am

Something not unlike it has actually been proposed.

February 22, 2020 9:58 am

On Venus, the ground is not very interesting. It is a way too hot down there. One should study its clouds at the hight of reasonable temperatures.

John Tillman
Reply to  Alex
February 22, 2020 10:16 am

The ground is where evidence of ancient water, if any, could be found. Climate alarmists want Venus to have had water, which it probably did not.

Venus spins too slowly to be spun as a cautionary tale of runaway greenhouse effect. It has probably always rotated at a stately pace, as evidenced by Mercury.

John Tillman
Reply to  John Tillman
February 22, 2020 11:05 am

Highlands once thought possibly granite were shown last year more likely basalt. The radar data aren’t dispositive however, so a surface lander is called for, capable of surviving long enough to sample the rock.

Or a series of probes dropped from a mother drone in the more clement air, above the sulfurous clouds.

February 22, 2020 10:47 am

I’ll opt for projecting a quantum hologram which can be compared to an undisturbed pattern to determine shapes of obstacles in the immediate path of the rover, as well as mapping terrain. All that remains is to drop a fiber optic cable down from orbit close enough to the rover to enable quantum communication to and from the mother ship. Of course, NASA would first require a Netflix contract.

February 22, 2020 1:20 pm

The longest measure of time that a shuttle has made due on the outside of Venus is 127 minutes. On March 1, 1982, the USSR’s Venera 13 test parachuted to a delicate landing and figured out how to continue working for a little more than two hours by concealing the entirety of its PCs within a hermetically fixed titanium pressure vessel that was pre-cooled in circle. The surface temperature on Venus midpoints 464 °C (867 °F), which is more sizzling than the outside of Mercury (the nearest planet to the sun), and sweltering enough that customary gadgets essentially won’t work.

February 22, 2020 1:35 pm

A rover sounds to be just about the worst means of locomotion on the surface of Venus. Take advantage of the horrid pressure with buoyancy and a single piston for hopping, or even floating.

Others have noted the need for corrosion resistant material, and Saramet 23 comes to mind.

John in Oz
February 22, 2020 2:42 pm

I was intrigued by the facts given here about Venus so looked for more info.

I worry about NASA’s communication ability when making statements such as:

Venus is 1.1x smaller than Earth

They could have said “The Earth is 0.91x larger than Venus” to make a clearer comparison.

February 22, 2020 4:44 pm

Easy. Attach a forward facing cat to the front of the rover. The cat has very sensitive whiskers. As long as the cat purrs, the rover keeps going forward, but when the cat bumps into something with its whiskers, it miaows, and the rover turns back from where it came.

February 23, 2020 7:18 pm

I do have an inkling – but I’m pretty sure that if I had the whole idea and not just the inkling it would be worth a lot more than $30,000.

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