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Virgin Orbit — Airborne LauncherOne Service

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Virgin Orbit, with headquarters in Long Beach, California, is a company within the Virgin Group which plans to provide launch services for small satellites. The company was formed in 2017 to develop the air-launched LauncherOne rocket, launched from Cosmic Girl, which had previously been a project of Virgin Galactic. 1)

Cosmic Girl is no stranger to the Virgin family, coming to Virgin Galactic from its sister company Virgin Atlantic. The jet will now be modified to accommodate a satellite-launching rocket called LauncherOne, beneath the plane's left wing. Virgin Galactic unveiled Cosmic Girl in a recent video last week that shows just how it will loft LauncherOne rockets into space.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space company is spinning off its LauncherOne rocket program into a separate firm to better position itself to serve the booming small-satellite industry, the company said Thursday (March 2).

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides will hold the same role in the spin-off, called Virgin Orbit, with day-to-day operations now in the hands of Dan Hart, a veteran Boeing executive hired away to become Orbit's president.

The LauncherOne program, based in Long Beach, California, intends to serve the burgeoning small-satellite industry by offering low-cost, quick-turnaround launch services to orbit.

Virgin Orbit is going into space to improve life on Earth. Since 2017, we have been providing dedicated, responsive and affordable launch services for small satellites. 2)

More capable than ever before, small satellites need launch providers that are as nimble and agile as the spacecraft themselves. To meet the needs of today’s satellite makers and operators, Virgin Orbit has developed LauncherOne, the world’s most flexible launch service for commercial and government-built satellites. From small businesses to university groups, Virgin Orbit is lowering barriers by making space more accessible and supporting missions that will make us smarter, safer and wealthier.

Keeping it well and truly in the Virgin family, Virgin Orbit has taken a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 passenger airliner and transformed her into Cosmic Girl, whose mission it is to launch satellites into space from her wings.

If that didn’t sound cool enough, some of Virgin Orbit’s customer missions could provide connectivity to remote areas, track ships and planes, collect climate data, issue disaster responses, provide technology demonstrations, offer space debris cleanups and enhance national security and defence.

Virgin Orbit has introduced a whole new standard of customer service to the space industry.




Launches of LauncherOne

LauncherOne is a two stage orbital launch vehicle developed by the commercial company Virgin Orbit. It is an air launch to orbit rocket, designed to launch "smallsat" payloads of 300 kg (660 lb) into Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), following air launch from a carrier aircraft at high altitude. The first attempted orbital test flight was completed on 25 May 2020, but failed to reach space due to an anomaly that occurred shortly after the vehicle's release from a Boeing 747-400, named Cosmic Girl, over the Pacific Ocean. 3)


Launch Demo 1: May 25, 2020: Making its first flight, a privately-funded air-launched rocket developed and built by Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit failed to reach space Monday after release from the company’s modified 747 carrier airplane over the Pacific Ocean. 4)

Figure 1: Mission Recap: Launch Demo. We said the main product of this flight would be data, and wow, did we get a lot of it! After diving into our early analyses, we wanted to share more about the flight — including both the many things that went well and what we know about the areas where we’ll need to improve (video credit: Virgin Orbit)

Designed to haul small satellites into orbit, Virgin Orbit’s two-stage LauncherOne suffered an “anomaly” soon after ignition of its kerosene-fed first stage engine, the company said.

“LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree,” Virgin Orbit said. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We’ll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.”

The company said the aircraft and its four-person crew were safe. The “Cosmic Girl” carrier jet landed back at Mojave at 4:26 p.m. EDT (1:26 p.m. PDT; 2026 GMT).




Launch Demo 2: An air-launched rocket, built by Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, reached orbit on January 17, 2021 (Sunday, 19:39 UTC) for the first time, delivering 10 experimental CubeSats for NASA and positioning the company for the start of commercial operations. 5) 6)

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Figure 2: Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft — a Boeing 747 named “Cosmic Girl” — took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 2:56 p.m. EDT (11:56 a.m. EDT) Monday (25 May 2020) with the company’s LauncherOne rocket under its left wing (image credit: Matt Hartman / Shorealone Films)

The success adds another company to the growing club of private space companies capable of launching satellites. Virgin Orbit is second in a new wave of commercial small launch companies — after Rocket Lab — to accomplish the task of putting payloads in orbit.

Virgin Orbit aims to offer small satellite operators — ranging from NASA and research institutions, to the U.S. and foreign militaries, to commercial startups — dedicated launch opportunities from sites around the world.

“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible,” Branson said in a statement. “It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, ‘Cosmic Girl,’ send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit. This magnificent flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit.”

“A new gateway to space has just sprung open! That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. That effort paid off today with a beautifully executed mission, and we couldn’t be happier,” Hart said.

Virgin Orbit said the successful test launch will allow the company to commence commercial operations.

“With this successful demonstration in the books, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission,” the company said in a statement. “Virgin Orbit has subsequent launches booked by customers ranging from the U.S. Space Force and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force to commercial customers like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace.”

The use of an air-launched rocket deployed from a Boeing 747 carrier jet comes with some limitations and technical challenges, but Virgin Orbit says it gives the company flexibility in where it launches and the orbits it can reach.

In addition to the company’s primary launch base at Mojave, California, Virgin Orbit plans launches from Guam, and is studying basing missions in the United Kingdom and other sites around the world.

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Figure 3: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket fires its NewtonThree main engine moments after release from the Boeing 747 carrier jet, named “Cosmic Girl.” (image credit: Virgin Orbit)

The use of an air-launched rocket deployed from a Boeing 747 carrier jet comes with some limitations and technical challenges, but Virgin Orbit says it gives the company flexibility in where it launches and the orbits it can reach.

In addition to the company’s primary launch base at Mojave, California, Virgin Orbit plans launches from Guam, and is studying basing missions in the United Kingdom and other sites around the world.

Virgin Orbit’s 747 carrier aircraft took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 10:38 a.m. PST (1:38 p.m. EST; 1838 GMT) with the nearly 29-ton LauncherOne rocket mounted under its left wing.

After heading west, then turning south to cross California’s Central Coast, the aircraft’s two pilots and two launch engineers readied the rocket for release.

Piloted by Kelly Latimer, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot, the 747 jumbo jet entered a steep climb of more than 25 degrees just before the crew sent the command to drop the 70-foot-long (21-meter) rocket around 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) over the Pacific Ocean off the coast Southern California at 11:39 a.m. PST (2:39 p.m. EST (1939 GMT) Sunday.

Five seconds later, pumps inside the rocket’s NewtonThree main engine spun up to ignite LauncherOne’s first stage and accelerate toward the southeast over the Pacific. Burning kerosene in combination with liquid oxygen, the main engine generated 73,500 pounds of thrust during a three-minute burn to booster the rocket out of the atmosphere.

After crossing over Antarctica and coasting halfway around the world, the rocket reignited its second stage engine for a few seconds, targeting a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) orbit. The rocket was programmed to deploy its 10 nanosatellite payloads about one minute later.

It took nearly two hours for Virgin Orbit to confirm the results of the final burn and CubeSat separations.

“Payloads successfully deployed into our target orbit!” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first mission to space, carrying nine CubeSat missions into low Earth orbit for our friends (at) NASA.”

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne became the second air-launched rocket to put satellites into orbit, following the solid-fueled Pegasus launch vehicle developed by Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman. The LauncherOne rocket is the first liquid-fueled satellite booster to fly into orbit off an airborne platform.

Sunday’s mission, called “Launch Demo 2” by Virgin Orbit, followed nearly eight months after the first LauncherOne rocket failed seconds after release from the 747 carrier aircraft. Virgin Orbit said a break in a liquid oxygen feed line to the LauncherOne’s first stage engine caused the failure a few seconds after the engine ignited.

The LauncherOne vehicle can deliver up to 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of payload to a low-altitude equatorial orbit, or up to 661 pounds (300 kg) to a 310-mile-high (500 km) polar orbit, according to Virgin Orbit.

The payloads aboard the launch Sunday had a combined mass of about 253 pounds, or 115 kg, including adapters and harnesses, according to Kendall Russell, a Virgin Orbit spokesperson.

Although there were 10 small satellites on-board, the prime objective of Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 mission was to “characterize the performance of the system and to get the data as we go through the sequence of events,” Hart said before the launch.

“We have what we consider NASA’s more risk-tolerant payloads, but from our point of view, they’re real payloads, and we want to get them to the right place,” Hart said last week. “It’s a new system, and the objective of a demo flight is to get the data on the system. So getting the data is internally our primary objectives, and our success criteria.”

NASA booked the mission in 2015 with Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit’s previous parent company, through the VCLS (Venture Class Launch Services) program. NASA established the VCLS program to provide rides to orbit for small research nanosatellites, and help give business to startup companies developing smallsat launchers.

The VCLS missions are “intended to be demonstration flights,” according to Scott Higginbotham, a mission manager in the Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

NASA solicits proposals from U.S. research and educational institutions for CubeSat experiments through the CubeSat Launch Initiative. The agency pays for the launch of the CubeSats it selects, while the spacecraft themselves are typically funded through other sources.

“Our first customer on this flight, NASA, has done some incredible things with small satellites, and we really look forward to pushing forward with NASA in exploring our solar system, our universe, and our Earth with small satellites,” Hart said in a pre-launch press conference. “NASA is moving toward using small satellites as a more cost-effective way of doing Earth science.”

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Figure 4: Payload technicians prepare one of the 10 CubeSats on the Launch Demo 2 mission for loading into its deployment mechanism (image credit: Virgin Orbit)

NASA called the Virgin Orbit mission ELaNa-20 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-20). The 10 CubeSats aboard Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 mission were built by university students and NASA researchers.

CACTUS-1 (Coordinated Applied Capitol Technology University Satellite 1), a 3U CubeSat of Capital Technology University, Laurel, Maryland. The CubeSat is carrying out two technology demonstrations. The primary payload, TrapSat, is tackling the issue of space debris by using aerogel to capture and profile orbiting microdebris. The mission also includes the first secondary stand-alone payload for a CubeSat, the Hermes module, which demonstrates commanding via Internet as an cost-saving communications and command subsystem for gathering scientific data.

CAPE-3 (Cajun Advanced Picosatellite Experiment), a 1U CubeSat of the University of Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana. This educational mission will fly the Smartphone CubeSat Classroom, which allows anyone with a smartphone to set up a ground station with a kit. Interactive educational activities will give students the ability to interact with the CubeSat via an app on their smartphone and use their smartphone to design their own CubeSat experiments.

EXOCUBE-2 , a CubeSat of the California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, California. This 3U CubeSat is equipped with a space weather platform that will measure a number of atomic and ionic substances in the exosphere. Knowledge of the composition and the current state of activity in the exosphere can be useful in the prediction of space weather phenomena in order to forecast potential effects on satellite communications and spacecraft performance.

MiTEE (Miniature Tether Electrodynamics Experiment), of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. MiTEE is a series of two 1U CubeSat missions developing the capability to deploy a pico/femto (i.e. very small) satellite-tether system. The missions will allow students to work on a real-world, research-driven mission to assess the key dynamics and electrodynamic fundamentals of a very short tether system for flying pairs of smallsats.

PICS (Passive Inspection CubeSat), two 1U CubeSats of Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. A pair of two satellites, PICS is a technology demonstration of a spacecraft that can perform inspection, maintenance and assembly on another spacecraft. The two flight systems deployed simultaneously will enable the collection of image data from each other as well as the parent spacecraft.

PolarCube, a 3U CubeSat on the ALL-STAR platform (mass of 3.9 kg) of the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado. PolarCube is a small radiometer that will collect Earth surface and atmospheric temperature data. Its purpose is to collect brightness temperature spectra at a low cost, useful for applications like storm cell observations and the study of sea ice fractions near the poles.

Q-PACE (CubeSat Particle Aggregation and Collision Experiment), a 3U CubeSat of the University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida. Q-PACE will facilitate long-duration microgravity experiments to study collisions in the early protoplanetary disk. The CubeSat will observe low-velocity collisions between cm-scale and smaller particles, addressing the decades-old question of how bodies grow past the meter-size barrier into planetesimals that can become planets through gravitational accretion.

RadFXSat-2, a 1U CubeSat developed by AMSAT and hosting several university developed payloads of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. RadFxSat-2 has two mission objectives: to study the effects of space radiation on a specific kind of Static Random Access Memory (SRAM) for the purpose of validating single-event error rate predictions, and to test a design for two-way amateur radio communications.

Figure 5: An overview of the CubeSat payloads provided by NASA and Virgin Orbit (Ref. 5)




Tubular Bells, Part One

• May 7, 2021: Virgin Orbit has scheduled its next LauncherOne mission for June 2021, carrying a mix of defense and commercial CubeSats. 7)

- Virgin Orbit said May 6 that it will launch six CubeSats on its next flight of its LauncherOne vehicle in June, flying out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The air-launched rocket will deploy the payloads into orbits at an altitude of 500 kilometers and inclination of 60 degrees.

- The launch will be the first since its successful Launch Demo 2 mission in January, which carried 10 CubeSats for NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program. That launch was the first successful mission for LauncherOne, after a failed launch of the vehicle in May 2020.

- Three of the CubeSats will be from the Defense Department through the Space Test Program’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, under a contract awarded to Virgin Orbit subsidiary VOX Space. The company did not disclose which satellites will fly on LauncherOne under that contract.

- A fourth CubeSat will be BRIK 2, a 6U CubeSat for the Royal Netherlands Air Force developed by Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space. The satellite will test communications technologies and demonstrate how CubeSats can support Dutch military operations. BRIK 2 will also be a test of “late-load” integration of CubeSats onto the LauncherOne vehicle shortly before launch.

- The final two CubeSats will be STORK-4 and STORK-5 from SatRevolution, a Polish company. Those 3U CubeSats will be the first in a 14-satellite constellation proposed by SatRevolution to provide medium-resolution multispectral imagery.

- The announcement of the next launch was the latest in a series of developments for Virgin Orbit as it seeks to move into regular operations of the LauncherOne system, which uses a modified Boeing 747 as its launch platform. The company has touted the flexibility of an air-launch system, which can launch to any inclination from a wide range if airports, as a major selling point.

- Virgin Orbit announced April 28 that the Brazilian government selected the company as one of four commercial launch operators to use the Alcântara Launch Center in Brazil, alongside C6 Launch, Hyperion and Orion AST. Virgin Orbit is the only air-launch system of the four and the only company with an operational orbital launch vehicle.

- Alcântara would join Mojave and airports in Guam, England and Japan as potential launch sites for LauncherOne. The company, though, did not offer a schedule for a first flight from Alcântara.

- The company is making progress toward a first launch from Spaceport Cornwall, also known as Cornwall Airport Newquay, in southwestern England. Virgin announced May 3 that it selected a British company, AVS (Added Value Solutions), to build the ground support equipment needed to support LauncherOne missions from Cornwall. The first LauncherOne launch from Cornwall is tentatively scheduled for 2022.

- Virgin Orbit also secured a new customer April 21, signing up QinetiQ and HyperSat to launch a constellation of six hyperspectral satellites. The first satellite will launch on a LauncherOne rocket in 2023. Company spokesperson Kendall Russell said there’s no schedule yet for the launch of the rest of the constellation.

- Virgin Orbit is taking a page from one of its competitors in the small launch market, Rocket Lab, by naming its missions. The company said the June launch is called “Tubular Bells, Part One,” after the first track on the first album released by Virgin Records, the record company founded nearly a half-century ago by Richard Branson. The nontraditional album became one of the most popular albums of the 1970s.

- “For the first flight after the conclusion of our test program, what could be more appropriate than to tip our hat to that creative work and those bold decisions?” the company said in a statement about the upcoming launch.




Virgin Orbit launches CubeSats on second operational mission

• July 12, 2021: MDA’s (Missile Defence Agency) CubeSats were two of the seven government and commercial payloads launched in Virgin Orbit’s second operational mission. 8)

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Figure 6: Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and VOX Space engineers integrate the CubeSat networked communications experiment at the company’s integration facility in Long Beach, Calif., in preparation for launch June 30, 2021 (image credit: VOX Space)

- Two Missile Defense Agency CubeSats launched June 30 aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully began communicating with ground stations last week, the agency announced July 12.

- The satellites are the first of a series of network communications experiments planned by MDA to demonstrate mesh networking in space and satellite-to-ground links. The CubeSats will mimic two suborbital missile interceptor vehicles and test communications between them.

- “Transmitting data between interceptors, sensors and communication systems is critical to a missile defense architecture that must quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets,” MDA said in a news release.

- MDA is developing a hypersonic and ballistic sensor payload to detect and track missile threats.

- “The missile defense architecture will require communications between interceptors, sensors and command and control systems to quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets. The CubeSats will allow the agency to demonstrate the capabilities quickly and affordably,” said Walt Chai, MDA director for space sensors.

- MDA’s CubeSats were two of seven government and commercial payloads launched June 30 in Virgin Orbit’s second operational mission.

- Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is air-launched from a Boeing 747 aircraft.

• June 30, 2021: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully launched seven CubeSats June 30 in the second operational mission of the air-launch system. 9)

- Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 9:50 a.m. Eastern. It flew to its drop point over the Pacific Ocean off the coast from Southern California, releasing the LauncherOne rocket at 10:47 a.m. EDT.

- The rocket’s two stages performed as expected, placing the upper stage into orbit. After a coast phase, the upper stage reignited its engine for a second burn and then released its payload of seven satellites about 40 minutes after first-stage ignition into 500-kilometer orbits at an inclination of 60 degrees, although the company didn’t provide formal confirmation of successful deployment until about two hours later.

- “The team did a phenomenal job,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said on the company webcast of the launch during the upper stage’s coast phase. “Every single countdown has its own personality. This one had a couple of little, tiny turns along the way. The team just jumped on those, resolved them quickly.”

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Figure 7: An onboard camera view of the payloads on LauncherOne's "Tubular Bells: Part One" mission June 30, taken as the second stage ascended towards orbit (image credit: Virgin Orbit)

- The seven satellites on the “Tubular Bells: Part One” mission come from three customers. Four unnamed satellites are from the Defense Department’s Space Test Program, under a contract that is part of the DOD’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative. MDA (Missile Defence Ageny) launched 2 CubeSats.

- Two satellites, STORK-4 and STORK-5, were built by SatRevolution, a Polish smallsat developer planning a constellation of satellites for medium-resolution multispectral imagery. Virgin Orbit announced June 29 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with SatRevolution that could lead to launches of future satellites.

- The seventh satellite is BRIK 2, a six-unit CubeSat for the Royal Netherlands Air Force developed by Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space. The satellite, the first for the Dutch military, will test communications technologies and demonstrate how CubeSats can support Dutch military operations.

- This was the third LauncherOne mission and the second consecutive successful one. After the first LauncherOne mission, a demo flight without payloads, failed to reach orbit in May 2020 because of a ruptured propellant line, the second launch in January successfully placed 10 cubesats into orbit on a NASA-funded mission.

- Hart said in a June 29 call with reporters that he expected to perform at least one more LauncherOne mission this year, again out of Mojave. He said Virgin Orbit will accelerate operations in 2022 with six launches expected, including flights from Guam and England.

- “Today is Virgin Orbit’s day,” Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said on the company webcast. He, like Hart, was in Mojave to watch the takeoff of Cosmic Girl on the mission. “It’s now hopefully going to become almost routine.”

- “There are so many people that need satellites in space,” he added, “and we’re going to be able to deliver.”



1) Irenne Klotz, ”Virgin Galactic Unveils Spin-Off Virgin Orbit for Small-Satellite Launches,” Space.com, 2 March 2017, URL: https://www.space.com/35892-virgin-galactic-unveils-virgin-orbit-small-satellites.html

2) ”Opening space for good,” Virgin Orbit, 2020, URL: https://www.virgin.com/virgin-companies/virgin-orbit

3) Stephen Clark, ”Virgin Orbit’s air-launched rocket fails on first test flight,” Spaceflight Now, 25 May 2020, URL: https://spaceflightnow.com/2020/05/25/virgin-orbits-air-launched-rocket-fails-on-first-test-flight/

4) ”Mission recap: our first Launch Demo,” Virgin Orbit, 27 May 2020, URL: https://virginorbit.com
/the-latest/mission-recap-our-first-launch-demo/

5) Stephen Clark, ”Virgin’s satellite launcher reaches orbit for first time,” Spaceflight Now, 18 January 2021, URL: https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/01/18/virgins-satellite-launcher-reaches-orbit-on-second-try/

6) Paul Brinkmann, ”Virgin Orbit rocket reaches orbit, satellites deployed,” Space Daily, 17 January 2021, URL: https://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Virgin_Orbit_rocket_reaches_orbit_satellites_deployed_999.html

7) Jeff Foust, ”Virgin Orbit schedules next LauncherOne mission for June,” SpaceNews, 7 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/virgin-orbit-schedules-next-launcherone-mission-for-june/

8) Sandra Erwin, ”Missile Defense Agency confirms deployment of cubesats launched by Virgin Orbit,” SpaceNews, 12 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
missile-defense-agency-confirms-deployment-of-cubesats-launched-by-virgin-orbit/

9) Jeff Foust, ”Virgin Orbit launches cubesats on second operational mission,” SpaceNews, 30 June 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/virgin-orbit-launches-cubesats-on-second-operational-mission/


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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