Russia is a declining superpower. Russia economy is tiny compared to the US and is now also tiny compared to China. Russia’s military budget is now five times less than China and ten times less than the USA. Russia controlled eastern Europe as the USSR. They were a superpower for decades despite the economic power of the USSR being half of the USA. The USSR spent far more of its economy on its military and built high volumes of tanks, planes and nuclear weapons.
Russias economy and military budget are becoming smaller and smaller relative to the USA and China. The Russian military budget is about $60 billion and only $30 billion on buying weapons aka procurement. China spends about $200-300 billion on its military and the USA spends $750 billion. China and the USA are growing their economies and military budgets. Russia is being forced to choose between being militarily weak and irrelevant or gambling on making crazy nuclear superweapon systems. Putin has already chosen to go down the make crazy nuclear superweapons path.
Russia knew about airplanes with nuclear reactors engines for decades and all of the other dangerous but abandoned ways to use nuclear weapons. The Russians are leveraging their nuclear reactor and nuclear bomb capabilities to realize old dangerous superweapons. They are clearly building a nuclear-powered airplane and a drone submarine with a massive nuclear weapon. Anyone who says that Putin will choose not to make a particular superweapon because he SHOULD not is wrong. Putin is only considering the questions related to CAN we build it. Can Russia afford it and can it be done. There is almost no consideration for should related questions.
Russia has less military budget but materials for twenty thousand nuclear bombs and a lot of nuclear and weapons knowledge. Russia can keep pace with larger American and Chinese military budgets by being willing to develop dangerous but relatively low-cost and lower-technology capabilities leveraging nuclear weapons.
The US nuclear-powered airplane project in the 1960s was called Project Pluto. Details about project Pluto are below. The recent explosion of a test vehicle in Russia was likely their version of a nuclear-powered airplane. The technology was simple. You make a compact nuclear reactor like those on a submarine and then make it lighter by not including any radiation shielding. This means there is power for years of flying. The reactor generates heat at over a thousand degrees which would then be used for simplified jet propulsion. The chemicals would not need to be consumed to generate the high jet temperatures but would be more efficiently heated by the unshielded nuclear reactor. The US Project Pluto showed that this design could achieve virtually unlimited mach 3 low altitude flight.
Artist rendering of a nuclear reactor powered jet missile
The unmanned nuclear engine aircraft was never banned in any weapons treaty.
The Russians could use 150 kiloton or smaller devices for the propulsion and weapons of a Nuclear Orion Battleship. They could test the propulsion nuclear bombs to generate chemical based plasma for the Nuclear Battleship.
Russia would have devote about 1000 to 1500 nuclear devices for each Nuclear Orion Battleship. Russia has the nuclear stockpile to make about five to ten 4000-ton flying interplanetary battleships.
There have been analysis made of what are the technical issues for reviving a Project Orion. Costs of a nuclear project Orion program could end up being less than the Apollo program.
The Russians could choose quick and dirty options to keep costs low. They could give up efficiency and optimizations to just use the steel forging capabilities that have for submarines and nuclear reactors and just minimally adapt the nuclear bombs that they have. They could just take a thousand or two thousand weapons from their stockpile and create the weapon for perhaps ten to twenty billion.
In the 1960s, the US Air Force believed the 4,000-ton version of the Orion would be rightsized for an interplanetary warship. It would have 500 twenty-megaton city-killer warheads, 5-inch Naval cannon turrets, six landing shuttles, and several hundred of Casaba Howitzer weapons.
Animations of nuclear battleship Orions fighting in space.
Nuclear Powered Orion Would Be Able to Land Hundreds on the Moon and Mars
A 4000-ton nuclear-powered Orion would be able to land hundreds of people on the moon and Mars and take about 1000-tons of supplies. Large fully assembled bases could be landed on the moon and Mars. Russia could use several hundred-megawatt submarine nuclear reactors to power large bases on the moon and Mars.
Nuclear Bomb Powered Beam or Range Weapon
The Casaba-Howitzer charges would be from sub-kiloton to several kilotons in yield. They would be launched on pancake booster rockets until they were far enough from the battleship to prevent damage (several hundred yards). They would explode and destroy targets with a spear of nuclear flame. The battleship would probably carry a stockpile of Casaba-Howitzer weapons in the low hundreds. This means an Orion Battleship would be able to destroy Naval Fleets and any massed military ground forces, military bases and devastate many cities.
Mr. Scott Lowther is an aerospace historian who has researched and considered the Casaba-Howitzer and all aspects of Project Orion. He estimates that each Casaba-Howitzer round would have a yield up to a few kilotons and could deliver close to 50% of that energy in the spear of nuclear flame. Three kilotons is 1.26 × 10^13 joules, 50% of that is 6.28 × 10^12 joules per bolt. This is thirty-five times as powerful as a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb.
Project Orion Archival Footage
In the 1960s, the US had Project Pluto for nuclear-powered aircraft. Nuclear-powered ramjets would power a cruise missile, called SLAM, for Supersonic Low Altitude Missile. In order to reach ramjet speed, it would be launched from the ground by a cluster of conventional rocket boosters. Once it reached cruising altitude and was far away from populated areas, the nuclear reactor would be made critical. Since nuclear power gave it almost unlimited range, the missile could cruise in circles over the ocean until ordered “down to the deck” for its supersonic dash to targets in the Soviet Union. The SLAM as proposed would carry a payload of many nuclear weapons to be dropped on multiple targets, making the cruise missile into an unmanned bomber. After delivering all its warheads, the missile could then spend weeks flying over populated areas at low altitudes, causing tremendous ground damage with its shock wave and radiation from its unshielded reactor. When it finally lost enough power to fly, and crash-landed, the engine would have a good chance of spewing deadly radiation for months to come.
In 1957, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (later Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) began detailed design studies of ramjet propulsion reactors. The flight reactor was intended to have thermal power in excess of 500 megawatts, but to prove the concept a sub-scale reactor was built first. This reactor, designated Tory II-A, had a design power of 155 megawatts. It heated incoming air to a temperature of 1080 °C, and had a flow rate of 320 kg/sec.
With the success of Tory II-A, work began on Tory II-C, a full-scale, flight-weight reactor capable of sustained low altitude flight in excess of Mach 3. With design power of 500 megawatts and much greater airflow, the tank farm had to be expanded by a factor of ten, employing 40 km (25 miles) of oil well casing pipe, which took five days to fill with air.
There are now public documents about the Project Pluto work.
SOURCES- theblackvault, Youtube, Wikipedia, Project Rho, Scott Lowther
Written By Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture.com
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.
53 thoughts on “Russian Nuclear Project Orion Battleship Might Happen”
Yes, that was it.
It is covered here:
Sounds about right. I’ll look it up.
Are you thinking of the CANEL (Connectcut Aircraft Nuclear Engine Lab) in Middletown, Ct that Pratt & WHitney ran in the ’60s?
Fair point. However, you could do subsonic cruise at low altitudes, then either pop up supersonically for the terminal approach, or simply engineer the system to withstand low altitude supersonic heating long enough to reach the target.
It makes zero sense to hypothesize any of this under the “high mach/supersonic/hypersonic” cruise missile premise. A nuclear cruise missile would always be subsconic. Regardless of powerplant, everything melts at hypersonic speed at 100,000 ft, at sea level it “melts faster”.
Good joke, thanks for the good laugh.
It was tested in Evendale.
Dad was part of that.
Pratt & Whitney had a closed cycle version with a heat exchanger. From what I remember, it was not nearly as bad, but performance was sacrificed.
Would the nuclear flux from the reactor be a major limiting factor in flight durability? Electronics, at minimum, would need to be shielded.
Also, how does ionizing radiation affect comms and telemetry?
Everything you say is correct, cannot argue with any of it, good conversation. The potential is there though, and as I said the Russians may have something with this idea. From a military and geopolitical standpoint it would be a game changer if accomplished, leaving all other countries to die on the vine or create a new world order for pennies on the military spent dollar. It reminds me of a game of Go, using few pieces to control the board.
There are sanctions and there are sanctions. A complete ban on all trade with Russia, seisure of all Russian diplomatic and corporate bank accounts outside of Russia, declaring Russian diplomants and businessmen “persona non grata”, and so on would hurt Russia quite a bit.
China would only be on-board if Russia still allows them access to space. And they would demand an equal share of the space spoils. Otherwise they’d be happy to fill in the vacuum in world trade that would be left after those sanctions.
> an Orion drive ship can take all the parts and resources they will need into space with them in one shot
Maybe, but unlike the technology for Orion, the technology for space mining and other space industry doesn’t exist yet. They’ll have to develop it first.
I won’t argue about the rest, because frankly I’m not that deeply familiar with US politics. Just pointing out that a nuclear strike can still be launched even with Orions in orbit, some of it will get through, and I think a nuclear strike is likely if a nuclear country is pushed into a corner – which a space blockade is an example of.
Btw, if US launched a big fraction of its ICBMs at the same time, I don’t think a few Orions could stop all of them. Too many targets. And bombers can creep in under the radar.
“Furthermore, it takes a long time to develop that space industry that they’d need to get through the economic sanctions. Until that’s in place, imposing a space blockade is even riskier.”
Russia is already under sanctions, so that would not work with them. Especially if China helped and was on board. Also, an Orion drive ship can take all the parts and resources they will need into space with them in one shot, they’re that big. They could launch more than one too.
Our cruise missiles would still work, sure, but most of our nuclear arsenal is ICBM’s, not sub launched cruise missiles. ICBM’s are also our largest yielding nukes too. Put large lasers and/or China’s new rail guns on it and they’ll be able to take just about anything out from space or launching from the Earth before they even leave the gravity well to achieve full velocity. An authoritative government could make the country prepare for a possible nuclear exchange easier than we could, especially with prior planning.
No, I stick by what I wrote. If they feel they have nothing to lose, and make the Orion drive ships fully stocked, especially with help from other countries like China, they would own us. Our politicians would not be able to make hard decisions like that over just launches and satellites being destroyed, they won’t risk cities over it by launching a nuclear war. They would try to accommodate, and if Russia (or other) made accommodating noises without giving up their advantage we would fold.
Direct fusion may have higher Isp, but likely rather low thrust. Having both high Isp and high thrust requires huge power output, with correspondingly big reactor and radiators. Dealing with high power in space isn’t easy.
The advantage of Orion is there is no reactor, and all the waste heat is dumped outside of the ship to start with. So you can have both high Isp and high thrust much more easily.
If any one nation tries to block access to space for everyone else, the first attempt at counter-measures would be economic sanctions. That might work for a while if the offender doesn’t have space industry built-up, but if/once they do, economic sanctions won’t be effective anymore.
At that point, I think nuclear retaliation is likely, since lack of access to space is the same as a death sentence, in the long run. So the nations that are being blocked won’t have much to loose: it’s either get destroyed by nuclear war, or get destroyed by falling too far behind the offender. The space force isn’t effective against sub-launched cruise missiles, and those can still carry a nuclear warhead to the offender’s capital and space communications infrastructure. The chances of victory aren’t high, but if they manage to disable the command structure, there is a chance. Either way, they can still cause a lot of damage.
Russia probably understands this, and won’t risk nuclear retaliation by imposing a space blockade.
Furthermore, it takes a long time to develop that space industry that they’d need to get through the economic sanctions. Until that’s in place, imposing a space blockade is even riskier. And meanwhile, the other nations will see the space assets being built up, and will scramble to build up their own too.
High thrust isn’t only useful for escaping gravity wells. If you want to get anywhere fast, you need high thrust. But having both high thrust and high Isp takes a lot of power, so usually we end up having to choose one or the other.
My response when I saw this-
Russia: “Hi, we’ve just managed to destroy our prototype for a nuclear cruise missile, killing several of our nuclear scientists in the process. What do you think we should do for an encore?”
Russia: “I know, let’s build a rocket powered by nukes that we going to fill it to the top with. Then let’s launch it from our own territory”
Russia: “What could possibly go wrong?”
Except for the little detail that bombs have been shown to work and work at huge energy outputs, since about 1945. While direct fusion is still a work in progress.
Keynesianism (at least the corrupted version that we actually get) requires the multiple of government spending on the economy to be greater than one.
That is, government spends another $Billion, the economy grows by more than $1B. Ideally at least $3B so you can tax back the $1B you just spent and still come out ahead.
Clearly this is a bold claim that, if it does sometimes apply, only applies to limited cases.
HOWEVER, for yea’s claim that the money didn’t disappear into a vacuum, all we need to presume is that the multiplier is more than zero. A multiplier of say 0.7 would completely refute Keynesianism while still meaning that your defence budget doesn’t just vanish.
Very much the same for the Chinese people vs the Chinese government.
The idea behind the nuclear salt water rocket was that, if you designed it right, you’d have near 100% burnup. Rather like Orion in that regard, but workable on a smaller scale and with a lower ISP due to the dilution.
I agree. He’s got to figure that he’s riding the tiger, and the only alternative to staying on its back is ending up in its stomach. People in his position do not frequently get to enjoy retirement.
Personally, I wish the Russians themselves well. I just see that as incompatible with wishing the Russian government well, at least for the moment.
That was an agreement with Yeltsin, wasn’t it? I’ll bet Putin would like the HEU back.
Once outside of the gravity well of the surface of a planet or moon I don’t think that Orion compares favorably to direct fusion drive.
Orion is really only useful for high ISP and high thrust uses. If you want to just escape out of the gravity well of Earth (where you need the high thrust) and you love the nuclear power then go for the nuclear turbo ramjet.
Russia has lots of uninhabited areas to launch from, they just need the logistics set up to build the craft in the right area. If a bunch of satellites get destroyed during launch, who cares? They probably weren’t Russia’s anyway and if they are can be replaced by kicking new ones out the door. Russia is a nation whose leaders traditionally are very good strategic thinkers. They have to see this as clearly as we do, so while this is may be unthinkable currently it is actually apparent and logical from a geopolitical and military standpoint.
I can think of many autocratic countries whose leadership doesn’t care about public opinion in the countries who they consider enemies and who will seize a stranglehold on power if given the chance. If they succeeded they will control space, the future of civilization, in an almost unbreakable hold. It would be doubtful if any other country could come up with a way to match an advantage that large. Game over, they will control the future.
Actually the published critical masses are upper limits using solid spheres, no neutron reflectors, no compression, no spark plug. Even thin spherical shells have order of magnitude smaller critical masses. Using laser or particle beam implosion gets you down to grams or less, which can be augmented with fusion and lithium fission yield. Still, bombs aren’t an efficient or sane propulsion system.
Personally I think that Russia may be onto something with this idea. Think of the axiom of the military high ground. If you have enough firepower in space, you can block every other nation from access to space. Be there “The firstest with the mostest”. This is made far simpler by being at the top of the gravity well.
You don’t need to nuke cities (even though that option is on the table), you just need to destroy anything launched from the bottom of the gravity well. You can destroy ICBM’s in flight, changing the balance of power among nation states. Considering the resources in space, such as uranium on the moon and the ability to launch large moon bases and heavy equipment, it would be possible to replenish your expended nuclear material at will. If you control space, you control vastly higher amounts of resources and energy than you can get on the Earth.
What would the political leaders of other countries do, start a nuclear war over space access, one they would be likely to lose when their ICBM’s are vulnerable? A war where their cities can be bombed from space through either rod’s from God or megaton nuclear weapons? That would definitely put a crimp in their decision making wouldn’t it? What good are stealth aircraft or a large navy in this scenario? They’re just targets from orbit.
This thinking is hardly new, it has been covered extensively in military sci fi. The question is, with the proper resources and motivation will it become reality?
Agree, it’s unrealistic. Russia is working on kind of nuclear thermal rocket, space rated nuclear power plant and plasma engines – that’s I know, but Orion type one is quite absurd:
I like the speculation though – it’s fun.
Putin surely knows where Russia is heading. It’s not good, and the impending disasters are coming from every direction.
Pretty sure he is just either 1) Trying to run out the clock so, no matter how much worse that makes the fall, it will at least have a chance of not being in his lifetime or, 2) Adding feverishly to his embezzled 200 billion plus, and trying to disburse it and hide it so it won’t all be taken away from him when he flees his collapsing government. He is also probably finding a place he can land, get to his stolen wealth, and still have a good chance of not being returned to an angry Mother Russia. All of these things also take time, which he is playing for, and involve a certain amount of risk that he is, no doubt, quite keen to minimize.
Or, most likely, he is trying to do both.
I suppose you love keynesianism, just changing infrastructure for military?
“I’m not so sure that the US would have the same kinds of problems.”
Back in the 70’s, I was in AFROTC. The joke going around in AF circles was that the Russian strategic attack plan exempted DC from the target list, in order to delay our recovery after the war.
That’s why I suggested it. Nuclear superweapon, would instantly catapult them to the forefront.
Not just the military forefront, though Orion is a pretty terrifying weapon. They’d instantly be in a position to laugh at everybody else’s pathetic chemical space programs. First permanent Moon base, first man on Mars, Putin could be seen driving Musk’s car around at the May Day parade…
The idea has to be pretty attractive for a nuclear power desperate to be important again, and decidedly lacking in scruples or concern for human life.
And, best of all, it’s mostly 60’s technology, outside the propulsion bombs it doesn’t require high tech at all. It’s ship welding, the toughest thing is probably the shock absorbers.
There is one major argument for Russia doing this that does NOT apply to China.
This is Russia’s only chance to regain status as one of the superpowers. China is already there and seems to be gaining status doing what they are doing. They have no need to take a big chance.
Yeah, Vladimir has lost his merit with the Russian recession over the past couple years which is why he makes fake polls to brag about to the hundreds of thousands of protesters all over Russia. The failing of the nuke is just extra dessert to the US and another lost merit of Putin. He is running on fumes and right now there are three ways Russia’s instability would play out. 1. The United States and it’s allies do something ‘aggressive’ such as deploying THAAD in Poland or giving them F-35’s which may bring Russia together, although still no chance on regaining superpower status and still maintains deteriorating economy. 2. The protests eventually evolve into a incipient revolution, Putin at this point has let the protesters get under his skin, he kills the opposition, puts Russia in a state of emergency, still no chance of superpower plus destroyed economy. 3. The protesters and opposition make a deal with Oligarchs that kept silence over disliking Putin and his handling of Khodorkovsky, the Oligarchs money is used for weapons, the military of Russia either joins the people or eventually succumbs, Putin most likely leaves the country, Russia still will not be a superpower but will be invested into by the likes of the US and Chinese due to the stable relations that the new Federation would have that Putin didn’t have due to distrust.
The US and China relations will warm again one day not far down the road, the Chinese are momentarily ruled by hard liners which periodically changes throughout history. Once these relations warm Russia would be truly FUBAR from the conglomeration of goliaths, China and the US have one simple goal, stability of trade. In the future (10 years likely) China would be on its own two legs thus not needing to steal US tech which is pretty much what the trade war is about, stealing tech. Point being Russia isn’t going to be a superpower again unless something totally unforeseen happens that at this point is impossible, not to mention Putin is losing his luster and soon the people may remove him one way or another.
This bot is acting like money was just thrown away, hmm maybe he hasn’t heard of the nigh global supremacy, hundreds of bases outside of the US, the jobs programs that exist from the military, the infrastructure they use the Army Corp of Engineers back home. Short answer is you’re wrong, Russians know they’re declining which is why they want Putin to give up hegemony because without growth he has no merit. The US has global dominance and a strong economy, countries including China want US support because they know the loss of a player keeping half the world stable would leave a tremendous power vacuum and a global economy beyond ruin.
Putin doesn’t want Russia left behind. Russia lacks the cutting tech and the funds to catch up.
So it is not so much of a leap to consider that when/if Spacex succeeds in their BFR the US will suddenly have their moon base in short order. With the flush of NASA FED funds (not even counting the mil purchases screw a 500 mil b21 when you can drop tons of rods from god in each run from orbit for a bill spaceforce) MuskSpaceX will have the funds to start his dreamed Mars bases. Follow that with asteroid mining orbital facilities ect….. The US will be an expanding monster in the Russian eyes.
Then consider China who has enough stolen tech to at least make a presence in a smaller scale through sheer mass of smaller current options and ability to catch up to the US all while at least being in the new great game.
You circle back to Russia does it really wanna be Germany during the colonial days just watching as the new greats exponensially expand through their new colonies and possessions in the new world? I could see Putin seeing that possibility and going for whatever could get Russia into the game. A juiced up Soruz toting a small bedroom with limited supplies and few cosmonauts to plant a flag before going home will just prove the point he will be trying to disprove.
And you’re a moron if you think that money went into a vacuum somewhere.
The title says they might do it. I make the case that after the submarine drone Tsar Bomb device and the nuclear plane that Putin announced and that they clearly seem to be working on then the next thing that fits the profile is project Orion.
This is a great rationale for Russia doing this. But I don’t think they will. Didn’t have good luck with the last large rocket they tried to develop. Interesting, all the arguments for Russia doing this also apply to China. China already has the technology of tiny warheads which they stole from the US.
Zzee eeval Russians!
Russia may be a declining superpower, but at least it wasn’t dumb enough to spend $12 Trillion on it’s military over the previous 19 years. It’s been a very expensive endeavor maintaining the ability to fight Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, ISIL, Somali pirates and most importantly, stoking the foolish pride of irrational people.
The article title seems to point out that there are indications that Russia is pursuing an Orion Project style spacecraft.
However, everything written on the article indicates none of that whatsoever.
It’s quite a leap of logic…
Logic 1: “Putin doesn´t question should, only can”
Logic 2: “Russia has nuclear capabilities”
Logic 3: “US researched Orion project and even created a Battleship version of it. Project Orion is based on nuclear bombs”
LEAP OF LOGIC
“Therefore, Russia will probably go for an Orion Project style BATTLESHIP!!”
The Russians would be nuts to make such an ineffective use of their HEU and Pu stockpiles. Orion would require thousands of bombs, and there are still physical limits that require at least a few kg of material per bomb.
A nuclear cruise missile might be pretty interesting to them. But until somebody demonstrates a kiloton-range inertial confinement fusion scheme, I’ve got plenty of other things that are better than Orion at giving me nightmares. Social media, for example.
I disagree. A nuclear cruise missile isn’t about defeating missile defenses. Instead, it’s a qualitatively different weapon from anything available in the traditional land / sub / bomber triad.
You can launch a nuclear cruise missile and it’s unlikely that any of the launch-on-warning procedures will make sense, because it can be launched and recalled, the same way that bombers are. But, because it can stand off out to sea for weeks or months, it puts huge pressure on an enemy to reach a diplomatic settlement that’s likely to be very favorable to the Russians.
On top of that, once you’re in this “we’ve launched but we can still call it back” crisis condition, doing a decapitation strike is extremely easy. Something doing high-mach at very low altitudes is effectively invisible to US air defenses until it’s right on top of a coastal city. That has the effect of paralyzing a government throughout a crisis, because they have to stay evacuated and hunkered down for weeks or months.
If Putin’s prejudices are showing in this thing, it’s in his fascination with decapitation attacks. He believes that a country without a leader who’s visible and mobile is dysfunctional, because that’s how Russia would be if he went to ground. I’m not so sure that the US would have the same kinds of problems. Even the federal government is pretty decentralized.
However, at the very least, this weapon would dramatically change nuclear strategy. That’s usually a bad thing–for all sides.
The reason why the US has stopped the Pluto project is because it was too radioactive even to test. Russia is a failed power trying to resort to last ditch weapons.
Americans have to love these “research” programs. So far they have only damaged Russia and probably will never be deployed. At least Vlad got a little PR mileage out them.
Ralph Merkle’s father was the project manager for Pluto.
As Dr. Strangelove pointed out, the purpose of these doomsday weapons is to save money on nuclear deterrence. They don’t give any extra edge that existing ICBM/SLBM warheads don’t already give Russia.
Putin seems to think of them as overcoming American missile defenses, at least based on his public comments about them. That suggests he has the delusional opinion that the US HAS effective missile defenses – it doesn’t. He seems to have been influenced by Soviet concerns about Reagan’s Star Wars program.
Next Big Past.
Heh, obviously you do read the comments!
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