Hear how growth investors spot space companies ready to blast off at TC Sessions: Space 2021

The space economy is booming and for the first time ever, there’s a fair amount of exit event activity. That should have later stage investors who focus on the area excited, and we’ll be able to ask them about it directly at our virtual TechCrunch Sessions: Space event on December 14-15.

Joining us for a panel focused on later stage investing in space tech, we’ll have Tess Hatch, partner at Bessemer Ventures, Sequoia’s Shaun Maguire and Lisa Rich of Xplore all on our stage at the event. We’ll look at the significant changes in the growth investment industry when it comes to space startups that have taken place this past year, and what it means to have a lot more companies actually shipping product and growing their customer base rather than being focused more on the research and development of groundbreaking tech.

Hatch, who herself has experience at both Boeing and SpaceX in addition to her investment experience, also stays close to the pulse of the industry (in addition to her investment work) by co-teaching a Stanford course on helping researchers commercialize their academic work.

Maguire’s focus as partner at Sequoia is on frontier tech, as well as fintech and enterprise (there’s a lot more crossover than you might expect!). His track record includes leading Sequoia’s investment in SpaceX, and he also led GV’s investment in Spinlaunch when he was a partner there prior to joining Sequoia in 2019.

Rich is herself an entrepreneur and founder, and has an extensive history of investing in both early stage and growth stage space companies, including Axiom Space, Made in Space, PlanetIQ and more. Rich’s own company, Xplore, also offers ‘space-as-a-service’ to customers, providing everything needed to host and operate a payload.

TC Sessions: Space 2021 takes place on December 14-15. Celebrate Cyber Monday and buy your 2-for-1 pass before November 29 at 11:59 pm (PT).

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Astroscale raises $109M for its on-orbit services technology

Japanese space startup Astroscale has raised $109 million in a new Series F round of financing, brining the company’s total funding raised to date to $300 million. The company specializes in on-orbit servicing technology, designed to help reduce the amount of debris that exists in operating orbital altitudes, and also to extend the life of existing satellites as a means of making orbital businesses more sustainable.

This new funding, led by Japan’s THE FUND and including participation from investors including Seraphim Space, brings Astroscale’s total funding to $300 million. The startup’s CEO and founder Nobu Okada said in a press release that the new funds will help them scale and “dramatically accelerate [their] ability to make on-orbit servicing routine by 2030.”

It’s been a big year for Astroscale (Okada will be joining us on stage at TC Sessions: Space 2021 this year, by the way), with a successful tech demo of its end-of-life services product in August. The company still has a second part of that mission coming up before year’s end, and it’s also progressing with its plan to demonstrate orbital debris removal for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in a mission set for early next year.

Astroscale last raised $51 million in October 2020, the same year in which it acquired Effective Space Solutions, a company focused on servicing the large geostationary satellites that provide some key communications infrastructure on Earth.

Virgin Galactic announces first raffle winner for two tickets to space

Back at Virgin Galactic’s big event for its founder’s first flight, Richard Branson announced that the company would be making seats on its spacecraft available via online raffle platform Omaze. The first winner of those tickets was just announced: Antigua’s Keisha S. (her last name is being held confidential) and her daughter.

The idea is, you enter with $10, and the money ultimately goes to charity, but you also get a chance at the prize of two tickets to the edge of space (of course the platform gets a little something too). In this case they raised $1.7 million for Space for Humanity, which is itself an organization aimed at putting people into space.

Out of a couple hundred thousand entries from over 200 countries (obviously everyone wants to go to space) the winner was Keisha, an Antigua local who plans to take her daughter, an astrophysics student, on the flight.

“I’ve always had a lifelong love of flying and a fascination with space, and this is truly a dream come true for me. It means the world to me that I’m sharing this experience with my daughter and am hopeful that together we can inspire the next generation to follow their dreams,” she said in the press release.

They’ll also get a personal tour of Spaceport America from Branson himself. Should be fun — congratulations to the lucky pair. No timing yet but commercial service is expected to start at the end of next year, so that’s at least a ballpark to start with.

Now, when Branson was on stage he implied these raffles would be regular events, but a Virgin Galactic representative said they “have not announced plans for future sweepstakes at this time.” Observe that this leaves open the possibilities that it is not yet announced, or that there will be none. Of course it is arguably premature to give away even more tickets when the first set isn’t due to fly for a year or more.

Rocket Lab aims to catch Electron rocket booster mid-air with a helicopter next year

Fresh on the heels of Rocket Lab’s third successful booster recovery, CEO Peter Beck said the next step will be attempting to catch the booster mid-air using a helicopter, likely within the first half of next year.

Rocket Lab recovered the first stage of its Electron launcher during an ocean splashdown last week, after the rocket delivered two BlackSky geospatial imaging satellites to low Earth orbit. The company stationed a helicopter near the splashdown area during that mission, but only for reconnaissance purposes. The ultimate goal for the company’s reusability program has always been to actually recover the booster in mid-air, and now it’s nearly upon them.

The main work to be done between now and then is helicopter readiness, Beck said during a call with reporters Tuesday. The aircraft that will be used for the mid-air catch attempt will be significantly heavier, and will have a significantly heavier payload capacity, than the one that was present at last week’s launch (the first stage weighs around 980 kilos).

“The other part of it is slotting that flight and with a very, very busy manifest,” he said. “A priority is always making sure we deliver our customers on time. So that that’s the next thing, but we certainly hope to have that flight within the first half of next year or as soon as practically possible, really.”

The company is planning a number of commercial flights between now and the mid-air recovery attempt, but these will be non-recovery missions. The next big learning opportunity for Rocket Lab will be once it is able to catch the booster and return it dry to the factory, Beck added.

Looking to next year, Beck said he foresees a busy year for the company, in part as a response to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand that have restricted Rocket Lab’s launch cadence throughout this year. While he didn’t speculate on how many launches the company might complete next year, he said he anticipated 2022 being the busiest year so far for the company.

Developing

Astra, Rocket Lab and Redwire will talk SPACs and going public at TC Sessions: Space 2021

Commercial space companies are increasingly seeking out paths to the public markets, and mergers with special purpose acquisition corporations (SPACs) are a popular mechanism for doing so. This year at the all-virtual TechCrunch Sessions: Space event on December 14-15, we’ll hear from key senior executives at Astra, Rocket Lab and Redwire about the SPAC process and what the public markets unlock for their respective companies.

Astra CFO Kelyn Brannon has ample experience leading companies through IPOs, and the was also the first chief accounting officer and head of finance at Amazon.com. Brannon helped guide Astra though its public debut via merger with SPAC Holicity at the end of June, and the startup has since seen its fortunes rise on big successes like its milestone first orbital launch, which took place this past weekend.

Redwire President and COO Andrew Rush serves as a member of the NASA Advisory Council, and was previously the president and CEO of Made in Space, the in-space manufacturing company that Redwire acquired last year. He’s in charge of the company’s overall business portfolio, long-term planning and strategic investments, and is the perfect person to ask about Redwire’s merger with Genesis Park Acquisition Corporation and NYSE debut in September.

Rocket Lab CFO Adam Spice joined the company in 2018, and has held a number of financial executive roles at companies across the tech industry, including stints at Broadcom, Symwave Corporation and Intel, all key chipmaking companies. Spice ushered Rocket Lab through its public debut on the Nasdaq in August via a merger with Vector Acquisition.

SPACs have uncorked longstanding pressure in the private space startup market for public market exit events, but they’ve also introduced companies in this relatively nascent market to the vagaries of public investors. We’ll hear from all of these companies who’ve taken this path this year what that’s meant for them and their businesses.

TC Sessions: Space 2021 takes place on December 14-15. Get your pass, join your global space community and get the very latest thinking on space SPACs.

Astra, Rocket Lab and Redwire will talk SPACs and going public at TC Sessions: Space 2021

Commercial space companies are increasingly seeking out paths to the public markets, and mergers with special purpose acquisition corporations (SPACs) are a popular mechanism for doing so. This year at the all-virtual TechCrunch Sessions: Space event on December 14-15, we’ll hear from key senior executives at Astra, Rocket Lab and Redwire about the SPAC process and what the public markets unlock for their respective companies.

Astra CFO Kelyn Brannon has ample experience leading companies through IPOs, and the was also the first chief accounting officer and head of finance at Amazon.com. Brannon helped guide Astra though its public debut via merger with SPAC Holicity at the end of June, and the startup has since seen its fortunes rise on big successes like its milestone first orbital launch, which took place this past weekend.

Redwire President and COO Andrew Rush serves as a member of the NASA Advisory Council, and was previously the president and CEO of Made in Space, the in-space manufacturing company that Redwire acquired last year. He’s in charge of the company’s overall business portfolio, long-term planning and strategic investments, and is the perfect person to ask about Redwire’s merger with Genesis Park Acquisition Corporation and NYSE debut in September.

Rocket Lab CFO Adam Spice joined the company in 2018, and has held a number of financial executive roles at companies across the tech industry, including stints at Broadcom, Symwave Corporation and Intel, all key chipmaking companies. Spice ushered Rocket Lab through its public debut on the Nasdaq in August via a merger with Vector Acquisition.

SPACs have uncorked longstanding pressure in the private space startup market for public market exit events, but they’ve also introduced companies in this relatively nascent market to the vagaries of public investors. We’ll hear from all of these companies who’ve taken this path this year what that’s meant for them and their businesses.

TC Sessions: Space 2021 takes place on December 14-15. Get your pass, join your global space community and get the very latest thinking on space SPACs.

‘Armageddon’ now: NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART mission launches tonight

One of NASA’s most exciting and unusual missions in years, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is scheduled to launch tonight on its way to strike and deflect an incoming space rock millions of miles from Earth. You can watch it live here, though it’ll be some time before the big smash happens.

DART is our first attempt as a spacefaring species to deliberately change the path of an oncoming asteroid. Rest assured this one in particular is no danger to our precious planet, but does happen to be a perfect test bed for the type of interception that might be necessary should such a danger appear.

“Planetary Defense has been working on the problem for, really, decades,” explained Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It’s time to start getting together this toolset — it’s getting important for all our stakeholders. It’s really been in the last five years or so that the program has increased its support. And the target has been around for at least five years before that — people were talking about how this is really perfect, we can view its success from the ground, there’s no need for a second investigation.”

The asteroid in question is actually the smaller of two in a binary configuration, traveling like a married couple through the solar system. The larger asteroid, Didymos, is about half a mile wide — not quite a planet-killer, but you wouldn’t want it coming down in your neighborhood either. And around it orbits our target: Dimorphos, about 525 feet across and sort of peanut-shaped, it’s about the size the Statue of Liberty would go bouldering on.

What DART will do is fly right out there and, just when Dimorphos is coming around from the far side of Didymos, smash into it as hard as possible — and that’s quite hard, considering that the spacecraft will weigh about 1,210 pounds and its new ion engine will have propelled it to the eye-watering (if it had eyes, and there was air) speed of 4.1 miles per second. (That’s 550 kilograms at 6.6 km/s for our metric friends; I leave it to the boffins to calculate the approximate impact force.)

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Dimorphos won’t explode and send fragments flying everywhere. Quite the opposite: the effect will be barely noticeable. But the impact will ever so slightly affect the period of its orbit around Didymos, slowing and expanding it to the point where a powerful telescope can perceive it. By observing this change scientists should be able to tell the mass of the object and how effective this refined technique of hitting a heavy thing with another thing actually was.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket. Image Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Once they know that, they can make an informed decision on what might be necessary if, for instance, an asteroid twice as large was in fact on a collision course. By applying this much force at this angle, at this time and distance (as far out as possible, one member of the team told me), we can divert it just enough that it won’t hit us. DART will be foundational to this sort of planetary defense work. Hopefully we won’t ever need it, but we can all agree it’s better to be prepared than have to muster a ragtag group of oil rig roughnecks to nuke the Big One at the last minute. That’s another “Armageddon” reference to keep our valued older readership engaged.

“What we’d really like to do with this is, we need to know how to size an impactor depending on the size of the threat coming in. We want an impactor model with a high degree of accuracy,” said Zurbuchen. One such mission may not be enough, and though there are no plans for another impact mission yet, “I could easily imagine that a follow-up test into a different asteroid type could be on the books.”

Of course though the impact may be relatively small, it will still be cool. So we’re sending up a partner spacecraft, LICIACube, that will watch from nearby, providing both data and crowd-pleasing footage of our attack on space mountain. Chances are it will just look like a puff of dust, gravel, and solar panel parts, but you never know. This might be the asteroid with something living in it. If so, it will still about 6.8 million miles away, so we won’t be in immediate danger. At any rate it’s hard to imagine ramming an asteroid with a spacecraft and not getting it on camera.

“It’s a high risk, high impact investigation,” Zurbuchen said of the companion cubesat, which will have to be perfectly positioned and watching closely at the time of impact. “We can be sure it worked without it, but… I want to see that movie, man.”

The launch window for DART, aboard its SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle, begins tonight at about 10:20 PM Pacific, and the weather at Vandenberg Space Force Base is looking 90 percent favorable in the latest reports. Once it’s out there it will be nearly a year before the spacecraft makes its destructive rendezvous with Dimorphos: impact is estimated to take place at the end of September 2022, though we’ll only know the exact time once the variables are locked down.

Pre-launch coverage will be happening all day on NASA Live, but tune in at about 7 PM for the real run-up and countdown to launch. You can watch below or at any of the links provided here.

‘Armageddon’ now: NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART mission launches tonight

One of NASA’s most exciting and unusual missions in years, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is scheduled to launch tonight on its way to strike and deflect an incoming space rock millions of miles from Earth. You can watch it live here, though it’ll be some time before the big smash happens.

DART is our first attempt as a spacefaring species to deliberately change the path of an oncoming asteroid. Rest assured this one in particular is no danger to our precious planet, but does happen to be a perfect test bed for the type of interception that might be necessary should such a danger appear.

“Planetary Defense has been working on the problem for, really, decades,” explained Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It’s time to start getting together this toolset — it’s getting important for all our stakeholders. It’s really been in the last five years or so that the program has increased its support. And the target has been around for at least five years before that — people were talking about how this is really perfect, we can view its success from the ground, there’s no need for a second investigation.”

The asteroid in question is actually the smaller of two in a binary configuration, traveling like a married couple through the solar system. The larger asteroid, Didymos, is about half a mile wide — not quite a planet-killer, but you wouldn’t want it coming down in your neighborhood either. And around it orbits our target: Dimorphos, about 525 feet across and sort of peanut-shaped, it’s about the size the Statue of Liberty would go bouldering on.

What DART will do is fly right out there and, just when Dimorphos is coming around from the far side of Didymos, smash into it as hard as possible — and that’s quite hard, considering that the spacecraft will weigh about 1,210 pounds and its new ion engine will have propelled it to the eye-watering (if it had eyes, and there was air) speed of 4.1 miles per second. (That’s 550 kilograms at 6.6 km/s for our metric friends; I leave it to the boffins to calculate the approximate impact force.)

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Diagram showing how the orbit of Dimorphos will change following impact.

Dimorphos won’t explode and send fragments flying everywhere. Quite the opposite: the effect will be barely noticeable. But the impact will ever so slightly affect the period of its orbit around Didymos, slowing and expanding it to the point where a powerful telescope can perceive it. By observing this change scientists should be able to tell the mass of the object and how effective this refined technique of hitting a heavy thing with another thing actually was.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket.

DART in its protective fairing before being loaded onto the rocket. Image Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Once they know that, they can make an informed decision on what might be necessary if, for instance, an asteroid twice as large was in fact on a collision course. By applying this much force at this angle, at this time and distance (as far out as possible, one member of the team told me), we can divert it just enough that it won’t hit us. DART will be foundational to this sort of planetary defense work. Hopefully we won’t ever need it, but we can all agree it’s better to be prepared than have to muster a ragtag group of oil rig roughnecks to nuke the Big One at the last minute. That’s another “Armageddon” reference to keep our valued older readership engaged.

“What we’d really like to do with this is, we need to know how to size an impactor depending on the size of the threat coming in. We want an impactor model with a high degree of accuracy,” said Zurbuchen. One such mission may not be enough, and though there are no plans for another impact mission yet, “I could easily imagine that a follow-up test into a different asteroid type could be on the books.”

Of course though the impact may be relatively small, it will still be cool. So we’re sending up a partner spacecraft, LICIACube, that will watch from nearby, providing both data and crowd-pleasing footage of our attack on space mountain. Chances are it will just look like a puff of dust, gravel, and solar panel parts, but you never know. This might be the asteroid with something living in it. If so, it will still about 6.8 million miles away, so we won’t be in immediate danger. At any rate it’s hard to imagine ramming an asteroid with a spacecraft and not getting it on camera.

“It’s a high risk, high impact investigation,” Zurbuchen said of the companion cubesat, which will have to be perfectly positioned and watching closely at the time of impact. “We can be sure it worked without it, but… I want to see that movie, man.”

The launch window for DART, aboard its SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle, begins tonight at about 10:20 PM Pacific, and the weather at Vandenberg Space Force Base is looking 90 percent favorable in the latest reports. Once it’s out there it will be nearly a year before the spacecraft makes its destructive rendezvous with Dimorphos: impact is estimated to take place at the end of September 2022, though we’ll only know the exact time once the variables are locked down.

Pre-launch coverage will be happening all day on NASA Live, but tune in at about 7 PM for the real run-up and countdown to launch. You can watch below or at any of the links provided here.

Blue Origin sets six-person tourist trip to space for Michael Strahan, Laura Shepard Churchley and first parent-child duo

Blue Origin has announced its next human spaceflight: A six-person launch set for December 9. This is the first time that Blue Origin is flying a full complement of six passengers on its New Shepard reusable rocket and capsule, and the group going on this trip includes Good Morning America co-host Michael Strahan; rocket namesake Alan Shepard’s daughter Laura Shepard Churchley; Voyager Space CEO Dylan Taylor; Dick Holdings managing member Evan Dick; and mother and child pair Lane Bess and Cameron Bess.

In keeping with Blue Origin’s penchant for notching historic firsts with its human spaceflight missions, this will be the first time a parent and child make the trip to space together. Lane Bess, the Principal and Fonder of Bess Ventures, will be accompanied by Cameron Bess, a content creator and software developer.

Upper L to R: Lane Bess, Cameron Bess, Evan Dick; Lower L to R: Dylan Taylor, Laura Shepard Churchley, Michael Strahan

This will be Blue Origin’s third human spaceflight ever, and also the third this year. New Shepard previously flew two crews of four people each, first with a manifest that included Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and then just in October it sent up William Shatner, along with Blue Origin’s Audrey Powers, DCVC partner Chris Boshuizen, and Medidata co-founder Glen de Vries, who tragically passed away in an airplane accident just weeks later.

The pace that Blue Origin is hitting with these launches is impressive, especially given the likely price tags for each ticket. With six person flights, the company is likely improving its margins which may lead to slightly more affordable seats for those going up, but it’s still bound to be an extreme luxury.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard flies its passengers to the edge of space, staying sub-orbital but providing them with a few minutes of weightlessness and unparalleled views of Earth, before the capsule returns slowed by parachutes to a landing in the West Texas desert.

Max Q: Elon Musk talks Starship, envisions first orbital launch in January 2022

Hello and welcome back to Max Q, your very favorite space news digest. A ton happened this week — launches, financing deals, contract awards, etc., etc. — so let’s dive in.

Send thoughts, tips, feedback to aria.techcrunch@gmail.com.

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Starship stacking

Source: SpaceX

Musk: SpaceX to conduct first orbital flight of Starship in January

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a talk at the National Academies’ first virtual joint fall meeting of the Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy on Wednesday night, followed by a Q&A session with Academy members on the technical and operational aspects of Starship, SpaceX’s ultra-super-heavy launch system.

First, the logistical details: Musk said he anticipates conducting the first orbital flight of Starship in January, followed by dozens or possibly more launches through the rest of the year. He added candidly that while the first orbital launch is not likely to be successful, he’s “comfortable” Starship will reach orbit at some point next year.

This is significant and not totally unsurprising. While Musk has made a handful of predictions before about when Starship might attempt an orbital launch, all of that has been dependent on the Federal Aviation Administration completing its regulatory review of SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site, Starbase. Well now, the FAA has officially confirmed that it anticipates the review will be complete by December 31, so a January launch is looking more likely than ever.

Musk also reaffirmed his vision of Starship as a tool that can make humans truly multi-planetary for the first time in history. He described the vehicle as “a generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system” — that means the moon, Mars and even beyond.

Rocket Lab acquires PSC, recovers booster after sending BlackSky satellites to orbit

Rocket Lab was busy this week. First, the launch company announced it was acquiring spacecraft separation systems company Planetary Systems Corporation, Rocket Lab’s third acquisition in around 18 months or so. Then there was the company’s third-quarter earnings call. On Wednesday evening, the company — drumroll, please — successfully recovered the first stage of its Electron launcher for the third time.

Rocket Lab has successfully recovered the first-stage booster twice in its history. During all three flights, this booster made a splashdown via parachute. But Wednesday night’s recovery included an additional element: the presence of a helicopter, which hovered near the splashdown area to track and observe the booster as it made its descent. While the helicopter didn’t actually assist with recovery, its presence is significant, as it indicates that Rocket Lab is also a step closer to executing its ultimate reusability plan: using a parachute to slow the velocity of the booster and capturing it mid-air.

Finally, Rocket Lab finished out the week with even more news: It has entered into an exclusive license agreement with Johns Hopkins University to commercialize small spacecraft telemetry and control radio technology. It’s calling the software-defined radio product “Frontier-S by Rocket Lab.”

More news from TC and beyond

Blue Origin reportedly upped its offer to cover the costs of developing a lander for NASA’s Human Landing System program from $2 billion to $3 billion in an effort to receive a contract. NASA has said that budgetary issues were partly to blame for why it chose a single bidder — SpaceX — for the HLS contract.

Hydrosat, a geospatial data startup, has closed $10 million in seed funding to accelerate the commercialization of its ground temperature analytics product. The startup plans on sending a satellite equipped with a thermal infrared sensor to orbit next year.

Fleet Space raised $26.4 million in Series B financing led by existing investors Artesian Venture Partners, Blackbird Ventures, Grok and Horizons Ventures. The Australian startup is manufacturing and launching satellites for Internet of Things devices, with the goal of operating a 140-satellite constellation.

Intuitive Machines landed a $77.5 million contract with NASA under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Intuitive Machines will deliver four research payloads to the moon in 2024 using its Nova-C lander.

Inversion, a startup developing a space capsule to send and return small payloads from orbit, raised a $10 million seed round led by Spark Capital.

Northrop Grumman is leading a team that includes AVL, Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost and Michelin to design a crewed lunar terrain vehicle. That vehicle design will very likely be submitted as a bid to NASA for a forthcoming contract.

Sierra Space — the company that has plans to build a commercial space station along with Blue Origin, Boeing and others — has raised $1.4 billion in new capital, bringing its valuation to $4.5 billion. There were a lot of questions about how the company was going to finance the space station, and its Dreamchaser space plane and well… looks like we’re getting an answer.

Starlink satellite dishes have been spotted at some Supercharger locations. There’s been no comment from Tesla or SpaceX, but it’s a notable development.

The agenda for TC Sessions: Space is here

Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening December 14 and 15, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.

Check out a sneak peek of the early agenda by clicking here. Suffice to say, you won’t want to miss it.

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