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SKYE on AOL

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    Jan. 31, 2013

    Two mountain gorillas are seen in the Virunga National Park, near the Uganda border in eastern Congo. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

    The Republic of Congo has declared a new national park that conservationists hope will protect a core population of western lowland gorillas, a critically endangered species, as well as other threatened species, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced today (Jan. 31).

    The WCS discovered a population of 125,000 western lowland gorillas in the northern part of Congo in 2008. After the discovery, the Congolese government pledged to protect the area with a national park, the WCS said in a statement.

    The Ntokou-Pikounda National Park was finally created by the government on Dec. 28, 2012. It covers an area of 1,765 square miles (4,572 square kilometers) and includes about 15,000 gorillas, 8,000 elephants and 950 chimpanzees, two other species threatened by human activities, according to the statement.

    "The Republic of Congo has shown the world its commitment to protect the largest population of gorillas on the planet," WCS president and CEO Cristián Samper said in the statement. "We commend the Congolese government for its leadership and foresight to set aside lands so that wildlife can flourish."



    The new park includes an area named the "Green Abyss" by WCS researchers that has a rich population of gorillas, the WCS said. [Video: Congo western lowland gorillas]

    Gorillas across central Africa, including the western lowland gorillas, face threats from deforestation of their habitat, wars and poachers who hunt them for bushmeat, as well as the spread of the Ebola virus.

    Western lowland gorillas are one of four gorilla subspecies; the other three are the mountain gorillas, the eastern lowland gorillas and the Cross River gorillas (the world's rarest great ape). The eastern lowland gorilla is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, while the other three subspecies are all listed as critically endangered.

    Reach Andrea Thompson at athompson@techmedianetwork.com and follow her on Twitter @AndreaTOAP. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

    Great Apes: All 4 Gorillas Subspecies
    In Images: 100 Most Threatened Species
    Image Gallery: 25 Primates in Peril

    Copyright 2013 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Winners of the 2012 National Geographic Photo Contest

     

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    Jan. 31, 2013

    STS-107 crew members, from the left (bottom row) are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From the left (top row) are astronauts David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. (AP Photo/NASA, File)

    Ten years ago Friday, the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed and its seven astronauts killed during the final minutes of its flight.

    NASA will mark the 10th anniversary of the accident at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, and take part in an observance at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where three of the astronauts are buried.

    Other commemorations Friday include events at a 2-year-old Columbia museum in Hemphill, Texas, where shuttle debris fell. PBS is also airing a new documentary about Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut on Columbia.

    The wife of the shuttle's commander, Evelyn Husband Thompson, said she has seen the film and was overjoyed to see footage of the crew that she'd never seen before. But she wept at the liftoff scene. "Just because I know the end of the story, as we all do now," she said.

    What happened on Feb. 1, 2003:

    THE SHUTTLE: NASA's oldest shuttle, Columbia was returning from a 16-day science mission when it broke apart over Texas, just minutes before it was due to land in Cape Canaveral, Fla. It was brought down by a hole in its hollow left wing, which allowed hot gases to seep in and tear the shuttle apart as it re-entered the atmosphere. The damage occurred during liftoff when a chunk of foam insulation peeled off the shuttle's fuel tank and struck the wing. Foam had broken off in past, and NASA knew Columbia's wing had been hit, but didn't think it was a serious problem.

    THE CREW: The accident killed the seven-member crew: Commander Rick Husband, co-pilot William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Dr. Laurel Clark, Dr. David Brown and Ilan Ramon, Israel's first spaceman. Husband, Chawla and Anderson had flown before; the rest were on their first flight. The crew spent the mission doing dozens of science experiments.

    THE FAMILIES: The astronauts' families were waiting at a landing strip in Florida for Columbia's return. After Mission Control lost contact with the shuttle, the families were taken to the astronaut crew headquarters where they were told of the accident. Six of the seven crew members were married; in all, they had a dozen children. Husband had two children; McCool, three sons; Anderson, two young daughters; Clark, a son; Ramon, four children. The youngest is now 15, the oldest 32.

    THE AFTERMATH: The three remaining shuttles were grounded while an independent board investigated what went wrong. The panel determined the disaster was caused by the foam strike, but it also faulted poor decision-making at NASA that seemed more worried about future flights than Columbia, saying "little by little NASA was accepting more and more risk in order to stay on schedule."

    The shuttles returned to flight 2½ years later with additional safety measures, including lasers and cameras to check for damage and a repair kit. The shuttles were retired in 2011 and are now in museums.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    In this August 19, 2011 photo, workers clear vehicles from the scene of a flash flood, caused by heavy rains, where three people died while trapped in their car in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

    PITTSBURGH (AP) - Surviving relatives of four people killed in flash flooding in Pittsburgh in August 2011 are suing several government and private entities claiming the deaths could have been prevented, attorneys for the two affected families announced Friday.

    Mary Saflin, 72, of Oakmont, was swept away from her vehicle and down into a sewer conduit where she drowned, and Kimberly Griffith, 45, and her daughters, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, became trapped in their minivan and also drowned when heavy rains caused a nine-foot wall of water to sweep down a low-lying section of road during afternoon rush hour traffic on Aug. 19, 2011.

    Attorneys Alan Perer and Paul Manion have scheduled a Friday morning news conference to announce the lawsuit against the city, its water and sewer authority, Allegheny County and its sewage authority, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, an engineering firm and even Chrysler Group LLC, which made the Griffiths' van.

    Those entities didn't immediately return emails and phone messages seeking comment.

    "Evidence has emerged that the danger of swift, violent flooding on Washington Boulevard has been known to government officials and their engineering consultants for a very long time and occurred repeatedly," the attorneys said in a news release. "Plans to correct the dangerous situation were drawn up but never implemented."

    City, state and county officials have since studied the road an installed an automatic gate system that closes sections of the road in the event of heavy rains. PennDOT has said it spent about $450,000 on the gates.

    Sensors will close the gates if a certain amount of water is detected on the road and emergency responders will automatically be alerted. The city has also trained about 1,700 public safety employees in swift-water rescue tactics since the flooding, which witnesses described as chaotic.

    The water was so deep that rescuers in a boat intent on rescuing a man from a tree floated over the Griffiths' van without realizing it, city emergency management officials told The Associated Press the day after the flood.

    People were clinging to trees, poles and car roofs. One woman tried to scramble to the roof of her car but the water was moving so fast, she was dragged along in it, then grabbed on to a truck.

    Attorney Perer said Chrysler is being sued because the electric windows on the Griffiths' Town and County minivan didn't work under water and the water pressure kept the victims from opening the doors to escape.

    "When this kind of vehicle is caught in a serious flood, getting out of it can be difficult or impossible," Perer said. "It becomes a trap and it will take lives. Here it killed a mother and her young children."

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    Inmates, wearing green, work with volunteers breaking off ice blocks from Lake Flower that will be used to construct the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival ice palace on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, in Saranac Lake, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

    SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. (AP) - It's a far cry from breaking rocks in the hot sun on a chain gang. In New York's Adirondack Mountains, inmates break ice on a frozen lake to make a giant winter palace.

    A work crew from an area "shock" prison camp once again this year helped local volunteers create this mountain village's lakeside ice palace - the shimmering centerpiece of the annual Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, starting Friday.

    Under snowy skies this week, inmates marched onto the frozen lake in military formation in winter-weight prison greens and hard hats. Working alongside the volunteers, they were handed poles to break off blocks or head-high saws to cut through the ice. Others in the boot camp-style incarceration program were dispatched to the tall walls of the palace with buckets of slush to fit between blocks like mortar.

    "Sir, yes sir! This is an experience of a lifetime, sir," said inmate Patrick O'Donnell. The 24-year-old from Long Island, like all inmates at Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, answers questions like a new military recruit.

    "Sir, where I live there's not much snow, so to see something like this is an experience, sir."

    Moriah, about 45 miles from Saranac Lake through twisting mountain roads, houses a six-month shock program designed to build character and self-esteem.

    Prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses like burglary, forgery or drug sales can shave months or years off their sentences by successfully completing a shock program - but it's tough. Inmates wake up at 5:30 a.m. for intense days of exercise, academics and substance abuse treatment.

    And they work. Moriah began sending crews to help build the ice palace in 2009, after the closing of a prison closer to Saranac Lake that had sent workers since 1984.

    The inmates move about the snow and ice without shackles, but under the watch of corrections officers. Officer Mike Maloney said the labor on the lake helps inmates get ready to go back to "the real world" when they graduate from the program.

    "It's actually great, sir. It makes the day go by fast - get away for a little while, get a little peace of mind, sir," said Norman Bloom, who is from Rochester. Bloom, 25, worked with a heavy metal pole to break ice blocks into the frozen water.

    Ice palaces have been a winter feature of Saranac Lake since 1898, fitting for a quaint mountain village where winter temperatures can plunge to minus 30 during cold snaps. Festival organizers say the palace tradition stems from the days when ice from local lakes was harvested for refrigeration.

    Volunteers were out on the village-side lake the weekend before the festival, cutting out big ice blocks. The footlocker-size ice cubes are plucked from the water by crane and fitted into the walk-in palace on the shore.

    This year's palace is about 70 feet wide and 50 feet deep inside and requires as many as 2,000 blocks, said ice palace committee chairman Dean Baker. So every hand helps.

    "We could do it without them, but it would be a lot more work," Baker said. "We're glad they're here."

    Warm weather and rain complicated palace construction this week, and work was suspended for a couple of days. Baker said volunteers planned to get back to work Friday and fix up damaged parts of the palace, working through the weekend if needed.

    The festival's theme this year is "under the sea," and the organizers planned nautical touches to the palace, such as an octopus ice sculpture and a throne shaped like a scallop shell. The palace is lit up at night with multi-colored lights.

    Moriah inmates do other outdoor work, such as clearing trees at state campsites, but like this job in particular.

    "Sir, we've done everything from work on Fort Ticonderoga, built campsites, but this job is probably the most exciting just because it's part of something bigger, sir," O'Donnell said.

    Jared Ridner, of Albany, said "this inmate loves it, sir." Ridner, 22, is scheduled to graduate from the shock program Thursday, so he plans to visit the festival before it ends Feb. 10.

    "This inmate, his parents are coming up," Ridner said, "and we're going to take a ride down here to show this inmate's parents what he did, sir."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 30 Ice Sculptures That Will Take Your Breath Away

     

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    As chilly, arctic air remains in place from the Upper Midwest into the mid-Atlantic and Northeast into early next week, a series of weak storm systems will bring the chance for a few rounds of light accumulating snow.

    According to Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski, "a series of weak storms originating from western Canada, known as Alberta Clippers, will attempt to spread areas of accumulating snow and flurries from the Midwest to New England and the mid-Atlantic."

    These Alberta Clippers will ride along the jet stream which will be draped across the Eastern part of the nation this weekend. It is this dip in the jet stream which will keep the cold air in place into early next week as well.

    The first of a series of clippers, the weekend clipper, will begin to move from western Canada Friday and into the northern Plains and Upper Midwest on Saturday.

    RELATED ON ACCUWEATHER: Blown Away in New England

    The storm will quickly take a turn towards the east on Sunday across the Great Lakes and into the interior Northeast by Sunday afternoon.

    A general coating to an inch or two of snow will be possible from the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes into parts of the Northeast.

    Higher snowfall totals will be found across the central Appalachians, where 3-6 inches of white stuff will fall in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. Locally higher amounts may be possible.

    While the snow from the weekend clipper won't be noteworthy, it will be a nuisance for those traveling across these regions. The light snow will be enough to cause slippery travel in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh just to name a few.

    In the wake of the system, lake-effect snow will briefly kick in, leading to additional light accumulations in the favored snowbelts.

    RELATED ON ACCUWEATHER: Sneaky Snow Midwest to DC

    As the storm system slides toward the Northeast coast Sunday night, low pressure will begin to form and deepen off the southern New England coast.

    While there remains a bit of uncertainty of how this low will evolve, it is possible that this offshore low may bring periods of snow to portions of New England as it taps into moisture in the western Atlantic.

    A few inches of accumulation will be possible with this solution, with the highest accounts likely closer to the southern and southeastern coasts of New England closer to the low.

    Another possibility is that the bulk of the moisture remains offshore, leaving just light snow showers and flurries across the region. AccuWeather will have more details on how this system will play out in the coming days.

    As this area of low pressure slides off to the north and east early next week, another round of light snow will be possible across the Midwest and Great Lakes on Monday as another quickly dives southward from Canada. Yet another clipper will be right on its heels for Tuesday, once again affecting the same areas.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    As a weak storm from Canada scoots eastward, a swath of light snow and flurries will reach from the Ohio Valley to the mid-Atlantic coast into Friday morning.

    The weak storm riding a wave of arctic air is the first in a series of systems rolling in from western Canada, known as Alberta Clippers.

    The combination of flurries, heavier snow squalls and plunging temperatures can lead to a coating to an inch of snow and slippery roads in some locations of the Midwest.

    Highways of concern across the north include I-70, I-80, I-90 and I-94. Across the south include I-64, I-75, I-79 and I-81.

    RELATED: 40-Car Pileups Shut Down Interstates in Michigan, Indiana

    Roads could continue to suddenly turn icy throughout Thursday night from Detroit to Indianapolis, St. Louis, Louisville, Ky. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Charleston, W.Va.

    The same system will ride the push of cold air to the East Coast Thursday night into Friday morning.

    A bit of snow will race across Tennessee Thursday night and could coat the ground in Nashville and Knoxville.

    A couple of inches of snow can fall in parts of the Appalachians from near the Tennessee/North Carolina boarder to western Pennsylvania.

    While the Appalachian mountains will screen out much of the snow from the Midwest, it can still bring enough for icy spots and areas of slippery travel for the morning drive Friday east of the mountains.

    Metro areas that could experience wintry problems include Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Md., Dover, Del., Philadelphia and perhaps as far south as Richmond, Va.

    The recent drenching rain has washed away any treatment on the roads from earlier in the month.

    Even in areas where there is no appreciable snowfall, runoff across some secondary roads can freeze.

    Through the end of the week, bands of heavy snow will continue to fall downwind of the Great Lakes. Some of the snow belts to east and southeast of the water bodies can pick up a couple of feet of snow.

    A somewhat larger and stronger Alberta Clipper is forecast to roll across the Midwest and Appalachians this weekend.

    The storm has the potential to turn the corner upon nearing the Atlantic Coast and grabbing moisture at the last minute. Due to the larger size and potential to gain more strength and moisture, the system could bring a larger swath of snow and more substantial snow amounts.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    ORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - An Alaska Airlines jetliner bound for Seattle made an emergency landing in Portland, Ore., Thursday night after the pilot lost consciousness, an airline spokesman said.

    The co-pilot landed Flight 473 safely after declaring an emergency to get priority care for the pilot, spokesman Paul McElroy said. All of the airlines' pilots are trained to fly single-handedly.

    The pilot lost consciousness "somewhere over Oregon," McElroy said, then later regained consciousness and left the cockpit. A doctor on board the flight tended to him in the cabin until the plane landed and was met by medical personnel on the runway.

    The pilot, who was not identified, was taken to a hospital but there was no immediate word on his condition, McElroy said.

    The Boeing 737-700 with 116 passengers and five crew members left Los Angeles about 6:30 p.m. and touched down in Portland at about 9 p.m. It had been due to arrive in Seattle at 9:30 p.m.

    McElroy says the pilot has been flying for Alaska for 28 years and was current on his six-month medical evaluation. The co-pilot is an 11-year Alaska Air veteran.

    On Jan. 22, the co-pilot on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Las Vegas fainted briefly, and the pilot requested emergency landing priority to get prompt medical assistance for him.

    "At this point we do not believe there was a connection between the two incidents," McElvoy said.

    Twenty passengers with a tight schedule for connecting flights were put on a Horizon Air shuttle flight to Seattle on Thursday night, the spokesman said.

    A new pilot was dispatched to Portland to fly the remaining passengers to Seattle on board the same plane.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos

     

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    Rescuers work at the accident site where an expressway bridge partially collapsed due to a truck explosion in central China's Henan Province, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2013. (AP Photo)

    BEIJING (AP) - An elevated portion of highway in central China collapsed on Friday after a truck loaded with fireworks for Lunar New Year celebrations exploded, killing at least nine people and sending vehicles plummeting 30 meters (about 100 feet) to the ground.

    The official Xinhua News Agency said nine people were confirmed dead and another 13 injured, including four in serious condition. It said the collapse smashed and buried at least 25 vehicles.

    Earlier reports by China National Radio and some other outlets of 26 people killed were later removed from websites, without explanation.

    An 80-meter (260-foot) stretch of the major east-west highway collapsed in Mianchi county in Henan province. It scattered blackened chunks of debris and shattered the windows of a nearby truck stop.

    A truck driver interviewed on CCTV said he was only 20 meters (yards) away from the explosion.

    "I heard a huge bang and immediately braked. I saw small fireballs falling down one by one," said the unidentified truck driver, whose truck windshield was smashed from the impact of the blast.

    "I then heard the sounds of clanking and exploding for five to six minutes," the driver said. "My face was covered in dust."

    Photos posted online by Xinhua showed a stretch of elevated highway gone, with one truck's back wheels perched at the edge of a shorn-off section of the highway. Other photos showed firefighters below spraying water on scorched hunks of concrete, wrecked trucks and flattened shipping containers.

    There was no immediate word on the cause of the explosion. It occurred about 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Luoyang, an ancient capital of China known for grottoes of Buddhist statues carved from limestone cliffs.

    Fireworks are an enormously popular part of Chinese Lunar New Year festivities. To meet the demand, fireworks are made, shipped and stored in large quantities, sometimes in unsafe conditions.

    A result is periodic catastrophe: In 2006, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, a storeroom of fireworks exploded at a temple fair in Henan, killing 36 people and injuring dozens more. In 2000, an unlicensed fireworks factory in southern China exploded, killing 33 people, including 13 primary and secondary school students working there.

     

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    By Renny Vandewege

    Groundhog handler Ben Hughes and Punxsutawney Phil at the 125th annual Groundhog Day festivities on Feb. 2, 2011, in Punxsutawney, Pa. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

    Groundhog Day is Saturday, Feb. 2. But can a groundhog really predict when spring will arrive?

    We all love Groundhog Day. The idea that a furry rodent can pop out of the earth on Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Pa., and tell us, based on whether he sees his shadow, how soon spring will arrive? It doesn't get any more charming than that.

    But how accurate is our lovable groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil? According to StormFax Weather Almanac, Phil has been right 39 percent of the time since 1887. It is amazing that he still has a job.

    The truth is that there is no science to these predictions. On a day in which the weather features a mix of sun and clouds, it's conceivable that Phil could come up with both predictions depending on the hour.

    So how do scientists really determine when spring will arrive?

    Meteorologically speaking, spring arrives on March 1, four weeks after Phil makes his grandiose appearance. In planetary terms, the first day of spring is on March 20 -- the date of the vernal equinox. The equinox is the day when the sun's angle is directly above the equator, making for roughly 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. After that date, the Northern Hemisphere begins seeing more daylight than night and temperatures begin to warm as a result.

    But most folks really just want to know when the cold days of winter will end and warmer days of spring arrive. The answer is far more complicated than the presence of one rodent's shadow.

    RELATED ON SKYE: The 'Seer of Seers' Predicts Early End to Winter

    Meteorologists look to global and regional patterns to find clues. These are known as "teleconnections."

    Teleconnections give meteorologists and climatologists key indicators as to how atmospheric pressure and oceanic currents may influence the weather for weeks or months ahead. The most well-known teleconnection that has become a media buzzword is El Niño/La Niña. El Niño has been blamed for many major weather occurrences, most of the time falsely as it doesn't cause singular weather events. El Niño or La Niña is simply a measurement of water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Warmer than normal water temperatures result in an El Niño phase while cooler than normal water temperatures result in a La Niña phase.

    This change in oceanic temperature can inflict large-scale influences on weather patterns over much of the world, including North America. For example, an El Niño pattern typically results in a wet period for southern California and cooler and wetter winter for the southeast United States.

    One of the best indicators for seasonal predictions comes from the North Atlantic Oscillation. This teleconnection measures the atmospheric pressure differences in the north Atlantic from the Azores high to the Icelandic High. A negative-phase North Atlantic Oscillation suggests higher-than-normal pressure in the north Atlantic Ocean and represents a blocking pattern that allows cold air to move into the eastern United States. A positive phase North Atlantic Oscillation implies lower-than-normal pressure in the North Atlantic, representing a progressive pattern that allows for a warmer eastern United States.

    Currently, the North Atlantic Oscillation is moving from a negative phase to a neutral and weakly positive phase. El Niño/La Niña are both neutral. That means spring could come a little sooner in the southwest and a little later in the upper midwest. As for the rest of the country, spring should arrive right about on time.

    Punxsutawney Phil and other local groundhogs represent great traditions celebrating the nearing end of winter. But meteorologists stick with global data in continuing to refine their forecasts for the upcoming seasons.

    Got a question for our weather expert? Ask SKYE.

     

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    WASHINGTON (AP) - A NASA top official wrestled with what he thought was a hypothetical question: What should you tell the astronauts of a doomed space shuttle Columbia?

    When the NASA official raised the question in 2003 just days before the accident that claimed seven astronauts' lives, managers thought - wrongly - that Columbia's heat shield was fine. It wasn't. Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle, broke apart over Texas 10 years ago Friday upon returning to Earth after a 16-day mission.

    But the story of that question - retold a decade later - illustrates a key lesson from the tragedy, says Wayne Hale, a flight director who later ran the shuttle program for NASA.

    That lesson: Never give up. No matter how hopeless.

    And to illustrate the lesson, Hale in his blog tells for the first time the story of his late boss who seemingly suggested doing just that. The boss, mission operations chief Jon Harpold, asked the now-retired Hale a what-if question after a meeting that determined - wrongly - that Columbia was safe to land despite some damage after takeoff.

    "You know there is nothing we can do about damage to the (thermal protection system)," Hale quotes Harpold a decade later. "If it has been damaged, it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done until the air ran out."

    When Harpold raised the question with Hale in 2003, managers had already concluded that Columbia's heat shield was fine. They told astronauts they weren't worried about damage from foam insulation coming off the massive shuttle fuel tank during launch, hitting a wing that allowed superheated gases in when the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere. No one was aware of the seriousness of the damage at the time.

    This was a what-if type question that conveyed a fatalistic attitude about the heat shield system being unfixable, which was "a wrong-headed cultural norm that we had all bought into," Hale said in a Thursday telephone interview.

    "There was never any debate about what to tell the crew," he said.

    In fact, NASA officials were overconfident in the heat shield on Columbia. A day after launch, NASA saw video of the foam from the shuttle's fuel tank hit the shuttle wing, something that had happened before. NASA officials studied the damage and determined it wasn't a problem.

    NASA managers even sent the crew a 15-second video clip of the foam strike and "made it very clear to them no, no concerns," according to the independent board that later investigated the accident. Eight times, NASA had the opportunity to get a closer look at the damage- using military satellites - and NASA mistakenly ignored those chances to see how bad the problem was, the accident board concluded.

    And had NASA realized the severity of the problem, the space agency would not have just let the astronauts die without a fight or a word, despite Harpold's hypothetical question, Hale said.

    "We would have pulled out all the stops. There would have been no stone left unturned. We would have had the entire nation working on it," Hale said. Ultimately, Hale said he thinks whatever NASA would have tried in 2003 with limited time and knowledge probably would have failed.

    And the astronauts would have been told about the problem and their fate had engineers really known what was happening, Hale said.

    When NASA started flying shuttles again, Hale told the new team of mission managers: "We are never ever going to say that there is nothing we can do."

    NASA developed an in-flight heat shield repair kit.

    The space shuttles were retired in 2011. Harpold died in 2004.

    Hale said he is now writing about the issue because he wanted future space officials not to make the mistakes he and his colleagues did. The loss of the Columbia astronauts - people he knew - still weighs on Hale.

    "You never get over it. It's always present with you," Hale said. "These are people I knew well. Several of them, I worked closely with. I was responsible for their safety. It's never going to go away."

    RELATED ON SKYE: Mind-Blowing New Photos from Space

     

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    Weather-predicting groundhog Punxsutawney Phil is held by Groundhog Club co-handler John Griffiths Saturday in Punxsutawney, Pa. AP Photo.

    PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (AP) - An end to winter's bitter cold will come soon, according to Pennsylvania's famous groundhog.

    Following a recent stretch of weather that's included both record warm temperatures and bitter cold, tornadoes in the South and Midwest, torrential rains in the mid-Atlantic and high winds in the Northeast, Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his lair Saturday in front of thousands in west-central Pennsylvania but didn't see his shadow.

    Legend has it that if the furry rodent sees his shadow on Feb. 2 on Gobbler's Knob, winter will last six more weeks. But if he doesn't see his shadow, spring will come early.

    The prediction is made during a ceremony overseen by a group called the Inner Circle. Members don top hats and tuxedos for the ceremony on Groundhog Day each year.

    SEE: 50 Must-See Weather Photos from 2012

    Bill Deeley, president of the Inner Circle, says that after "consulting" with Phil, he makes the call in deciphering what the world's Punxsutawney Phil has to say about the weather.

    Phil is known as the "seer of seers" and "sage of sages." Organizers predicted about 20,000 people this weekend, a larger-than-normal crowd because Groundhog Day falls on a weekend this year.

    "I just hope he's right and we get warmer weather soon," said Mike McKown, 45, an X-ray technician who drove up from Lynchburg, Va., with his mother.

    Phil's got company in the forecasting department. There's Staten Island Chuck, in New York; General Beauregard Lee, in Atlanta; and Wiarton Willie, in Wiarton, Ontario, among others noted by the National Climactic Data Center "Groundhog Day" Web page.

    "Punxsutawney can't keep something this big to itself," the Data Center said. "Other prognosticating rodents are popping up to claim a piece of the action."

    Phil is the original - and the best, Punxsutawney partisans insist.

    RELATED ON SKYE: Can a Groundhog Really Predict When Spring Will Arrive?

    The 1993 movie "Groundhog Day" starring Bill Murray brought even more notoriety to the Pennsylvania party. The record attendance was about 30,000 the year after the movie's release, said Katie Donald, executive director of the Groundhog Club. About 13,000 attend if Feb. 2 falls on a weekday.

    Phil's predictions, of course, are not always right on. Last year, for example, he told people to prepare for six more weeks of winter, a minority opinion among his groundhog brethren. The Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University later listed that January to June as the warmest seven-month period since systematic records began being kept in 1895.

    "We'll just mark it up as a mistake last year. He'll be correct this year," McKown said hopefully.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: Punxsutawney Phil Predicts the Weather

     

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    Dogs walk on an empty street Thursday past lots where buildings once stood in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood that was heavily damaged by floodwaters from a levee break after Hurricane Katrina. AP Photo

    NEW ORLEANS (AP) - While a blimp hovers not too far in the distance, circling over tens of thousands of Super Bowl revelers, Christopher Weaver looks around at the neighborhood where he was born and raised and almost died.

    He loves this place, probably more now than he did back in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina tried to wash it all away.

    But it's not much to look at, that's for sure.

    "You can see it for yourself," Weaver moaned to a reporter, staring Friday at all the vacant lots, overrun with weeds that are taller than he is, at all the abandoned shells of former homes, many of them still marked with the spray-painted "X'' that became the grim symbol of a great American city nearly wiped off the map.

    "I'm going to be honest with you," he went on. "It sucks here. Just look across the street. Nothing. Look over there. Nothing."

    In many ways, New Orleans has come back stronger than ever since Katrina. The restaurant scene is thriving. The hotels are packed. The Superdome has received a glamorous makeover. The French Quarter rocks into the wee hours night after night.

    But, as the Big Easy prepares to host the party-slash-national holiday it does like no other, Super Bowl Sunday, it's worth remembering that life has not yet returned to normal for everyone here.

    Not even close.

    ON SKYE: 10 Stunning Photos of New Orleans

    "It's like a tale of two cities," said Mike Miller, who works with the homeless group Unity of Greater New Orleans. "It's hard to believe that seven years later, it still looks like this."

    Just a short ride from the French Quarter, in historic neighborhoods such as Treme and the Ninth Ward, it's not hard to find a virtual time capsule from the days when Katrina roared ashore. On block after block, there are structures that look pretty much the same as they did after the water receded.

    There are the telltale markings that show just how high it climbed when the levees cracked - 3 feet on this crumbling house, 5 feet on those remains of a shopping mall, 7 feet on that ghostly apartment complex. Those Xs still mark the date many of them were searched, who did the searching and how many bodies, if any, were found inside.

    Where kids once played and neighbors used to hang out together, now all that remains could easily pass for a former war zone.

    "It's just hard to believe that every abandoned house, every abandoned apartment, represents a family that never came back," Miller said, shaking his head.

    Even after all these years, it all looks so familiar to anyone who remembers those horrific images of people clinging to rooftops and huddled on bridges, waiting desperately for help to arrive.

    "You can still see," said Travers Kurr, also with Unity of Greater New Orleans, pointing toward the roof of a boarded-up house, "where people busted out of their attics so they could be rescued."

    Weaver was one of those who barely got out alive.

    When Katrina struck, he was looking out a window toward the levee about a block away, the one that was supposed to keep him safe. Instead, he watched it tear apart right before his eyes - and the water come rushing through.

    He tried to escape the conventional way, but the pressure from winds howling at well over 100 mph prevented him from opening the door. He busted a window and climbed out, only to get pinned against the wall of his house by the rapidly rising waters. Finally, he went under, sure he was going to die. He held his breath and remembered what his grandmother told him, to always pray to God to forgive his sins.

    "Suddenly, something shot me away from that house," Weaver said, convinced beyond any doubt that he's still alive today only because of a higher power.

    A neighbor pulled him to safety using a strand of Christmas lights. After 2½ days on a rooftop, they were finally rescued. Weaver still has a nasty scar of his right leg from a cut he got while being tossed about in the turbulent waters.

    Despite the unthinkable carnage in the Lower Ninth Ward, Weaver never had any doubt he would return and rebuild, even if it's now clear that so many of his former neighbors and fellow survivors won't be following his lead.

    "I was born and raised right here," he said. "If Katrina comes back again, I'm still not leaving."

    Miller estimates there are more than 10,000 - and maybe as many as 15,000 - abandoned structures in the New Orleans metro area. Many of them have been commandeered by the city's large homeless population, who slip away in the light of day but leave behind evidence of their existence - dirty clothes scattered about, a bedroll where they slept, empty cans and plastic foam containers from what passed for a meal.

    As he drives around the areas that won't be found in any tourism brochures, another member of his team, New Orleans native Clarence White, rattles off what used to be here, what used to be there.

    "That was a popular bar room over there," White said, turning to his left. "There used to be a drug store over there," he said, shifting his gaze to the right.

    The NFL, as it now does in all Super Bowl cities, has set aside Saturday as a day of service, in which volunteers will take part in the renovation of five local playgrounds and their surrounding communities. That gesture will surely be more poignant in New Orleans than any other place where the championship game is held.

    But Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, a native of nearby St. Rose, is keenly aware that it will take far more than a few hours to get this city - this entire city - back on its feet.

    "When I get home, I drive around the city, go to some of my old spots, just hang out with people," he said. "You see the city is rebuilding, but we've still got a long way to go. It's just different, man. You have so many people that were lost. The spirit was kind of broken for a second. But New Orleans people, we've been through a lot. We love our city, man. We love to have a good time. We love for people to come have a great time with us."

    Even amid the lingering devastation, there are hopeful signs of progress. In the Lower Ninth Ward, for instance, construction workers were on the scene Friday at several odd-shaped, energy-efficient homes going up with funding from a group led by actor Brad Pitt.

    "I appreciate everything he's doing," Weaver said, though he quickly added that the remnants of Katrina are far, far more prevalent in this part of New Orleans.

    Through all the hardship, Weaver doesn't seem the least bit bitter about his plight. He's proud the Super Bowl has returned to his hometown for the first time since Katrina, and he'll be pulling hard for the Ravens to beat the San Francisco 49ers. This being New Orleans, the occasion will be marked with adult beverages and plenty of food - gumbo, red beans and rice, a big pot of crawfish.

    But, for all those Super Bowl revelers who might think everything has returned to normal in the Big Easy, Weaver has this message:

    "Come on over here where I'm at."

    It's not far away at all.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 10 Stunning Widescreen Photos of New Orleans

     

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    The constellation Orion rises high in the Colorado sky Dec. 11, a sure sign that winter had arrived. Daniel McVey photo.

    As many weather-minded people may know, Groundhog Day occurred Saturday, when winter's fate is decided by a groundhog's perception of its shadow. But in actuality, winter's midpoint in the Northern Hemisphere occurs today: Super Bowl Sunday.

    According to folklore, if it is cloudy when the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerged from its burrow on Saturday, it would leave the burrow, signifying that winter will soon end. If it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly "see its shadow" and retreat back into its burrow, and winter will continue for six more weeks. But Phil did not see his shadow early Saturday, suggesting an early spring is right around the corner.

    Saturday was also Candlemas, once regarded as the first of the four "cross-quarter" days of the year or the middle of the winter season, halfway between the December solstice and the March equinox.

    The true midpoint of winter, however, will occur today at 6:07 p.m. EST, just 23 minutes before kickoff of Super Bowl XLVII. Although the altitude of the Sun has been slowly climbing and the length of daylight has been increasing since the winter solstice on Dec. 21, any changes up to this point have been relatively subtle.

    For example: On the first day of winter at Portland, Maine, sunset occurred at 4:07 p.m. and the length of daylight (from sunrise to sunset) reached a minimum of 8 hours and 57 minutes. On "Super Sunday" - winter's midpoint - the sun will set at 4:55 p.m. with only 64 additional minutes of daylight having accumulated since Dec. 21. [In Images: Extreme Weather Around the World]

    But as an old and true New England proverb notes: "As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens." And as most people who live in the United States, southern Canada and much of Europe will attest this particular winter season, the thermometer appears to be reluctant to respond to the increasing solar altitude. Indeed, that extra hour of daylight is not enough to give us any sense of warmth; while the days have gradually become longer, the bitterness of winter with its attendant ice and snow is still the same.

    Still, it's in the second half of winter that the effects of the northward shift of the sun's direct rays start becoming much more noticeable. In fact, by March 20 - the date of the vernal equinox - the length of daylight will have increased by 2 hours and 19 minutes since Feb. 3. And because daylight saving time begins on March 10 this year, by March 20, the sun will be setting just seven minutes shy of 7 p.m.

    Interestingly, for many northern locales, long-term records indicate the first four days of February are the coldest of the winter. But average daily temperatures rise rapidly thereafter, so that by the last week of the month they are higher than any day in January. Meteorologists, in fact, consider that the winter season is over at the end of February; they consider "meteorological winter" to be defined by the three coldest months of the year: December, January and February.

    So for all those winter weary souls, take heart: In the days and weeks to come, you'll more readily be able to sense the greater amounts of daily light and see the more northerly position of the afternoon sunsets on the horizon. And soon the weather will correspondingly respond as well.

    So, take heed that while "Super Sunday" marks the halfway point of winter, that we're also about to turn the corner so to speak, both astronomically and meteorologically. And regardless of what your local groundhog or woodchuck forecast early on Saturday morning, spring is well on its way.

    Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

    Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 10 Stunning Widescreen Photos of New Orleans

     

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    South Central Regional Weather Forecast

    The Super Bowl game itself is being played indoors, in the Superdome, but folks tailgating in New Orleans are in for some nice weather. They can expect partly sunny skies with a high of 67 degrees.

    PHOTOS ON SKYE: 10 Stunning Widescreen Photos of New Orleans

     

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    Damaged photos are evaluated during restoration by Operation Photo Rescue-Hurricane Sandy, at New York's School of Visual Arts. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

    NEW YORK (AP) - Of all the images of Superstorm Sandy's destruction, the ones that linger for Florence Catania are the torn, stained pictures that hung on her walls.

    Her mother's decades-old wedding portrait, her own eighth-grade graduation photo, a snapshot that captured her mom on a carefree teenage day, all damaged in a Sandy-sparked fire at Catania's home in suburban Deer Park, N.Y.

    But volunteers scattered around the world are about to start digitally mending Catania's personal photos and others battered by Sandy, banding together online to restore items that can't be rebought.

    Founded after Hurricane Katrina, a nonprofit network of photographers, graphic artists and hobbyists has repaired more than 9,000 pictures discolored by floods, pockmarked by debris, speckled by mold and otherwise damaged by disasters in recent years. The Sandy project, which started this weekend, promises to be one of Operation Photo Rescue's most expert efforts yet.

    "It means a lot to me," Catania said after bringing her photos to the restorers Saturday. "These are irreplaceable."

    The restorers began shooting digital copies of the damaged prints with high-resolution professional cameras and specialized no-glare lighting Saturday at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, wearing white gloves to handle the images as though they were museum pieces.

    Indeed, a Metropolitan Museum of Art imaging expert and two of the museum's photo conservators were on hand to provide advice, and two of the camera setups had been used to help the Atlanta-based King Center digitize hundreds of thousands of documents associated with Martin Luther King Jr.

    After Catania left with her original prints, Operation Photo Rescue veteran Dennis McKeever glued himself to a computer screen, delicately copying snippets of forehead, sections of background, and overlaying them on similar, damaged areas of the wedding photo. Within about a half-hour, the retired computer network engineer had sewn up a sizeable gash in the portrait and was testing settings that might provide more visual data to help clean the apparently sepia-toned image.

    "It's a matter of feeling your way through things," said McKeever, who has restored more than 100 photos through the group.

    Other digital files would be uploaded to a password-protected website, where Operation Photo Rescue's roughly 3,000 volunteers can choose images they'd like to work on.

    It's a painstaking process that can entail both resourcefulness - replacing a missing left foot by duplicating and reversing the right foot, for instance - and research. A volunteer might try to look up a flag in a photo's background to see how it's supposed to appear, as an example.

    The average picture takes a few hours of work; some take as long as a week, said Operation Photo Rescue President Margie Hayes, a technical writer-turned-graphic artist. She got involved in the group after 2007 floods in nearby Coffeyville, Kan., about 120 miles from her home in El Dorado, Kan.

    The refurbished prints are sent to the owners for free. Film-digitizing company DigMyPics has donated the printmaking and postage; PhotoShelter, a photography site, donates the online space where the images are stored for volunteers to see.

    The Sandy effort also entailed other key contributions: three image-capturing stations, provided by Ken Allen Studios, a digital-imaging business, and JPMorgan Chase. The finance giant acquired the equipment to aid the King Center's digitization project and was "excited to provide this technology to enable families in the New York area to salvage family photos that would otherwise have been lost forever," Chief Information Officer Guy Chiarello said in a statement.

    Such contributions are key for an organization that had to cut off $25-a-month stipends for some volunteers' Internet service when a grant dried up in 2009. Now, it solicits members for donations whenever it mobilizes to a disaster area. Hayes said she raised about $3,000 for the New York trip, and she'd like to find a way to make a similar run to a Sandy-struck area of New Jersey.

    Dave Ellis, the photography director at The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va., and Rebecca Sell, who was then a photographer at the paper, launched Operation Photo Rescue in 2006, after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast the previous summer.

    The group now counts volunteers in all 50 states and 75 other countries, about 50 to 100 of whom are very active, Hayes said.

    It has responded to tornadoes, flash floods and tropical storms around the United States, amassing a gallery of before-and-after images that span generations: a formal childhood portrait, rippled and flecked with dirt. A black-and-white image of a Victorian-style mansion, faded to a hazy peach. A 1970s or '80s wedding photo, so waterlogged it looked as though the couple's faces had been scribbled on with crayons. Someone cradling a dog, the apparently decades-old snapshot splotched with a chemical yellow.

    "We're really trying to restore people's family memories and community memories," said Katrin Eismann, an SVA professor. While she co-wrote the book that guides much of the volunteer effort, "Adobe Photoshop Restoration & Retouching," this weekend marked the first time she participated in person.

    "If we didn't do it, after a while, those prints are just going to disintegrate."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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    In this Jan. 24, 2013, photo, Victor Pena of Flag Enterprises steam-cleans a floor in a home in Massapequa, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman, File)

    NEW YORK (AP) - Esther Tauscher stood outside her Staten Island home, leafing through boxes of family photos that had been steeped in storm water. She paused to point out life events - her honeymoon, holding her baby boy in a hospital bed.

    The photos are just about all she has left. Behind her, the home where she and her family lived for 14 years was being dismantled by a masked volunteer crew that tossed out her possessions and ripped out floorboards and walls.

    It was Tauscher's only option. Her house and nearly everything in it was consumed by mold.

    "If the water didn't get it, the mold got it," she said.

    Three months after Superstorm Sandy, mold lurks in once-waterlogged buildings, hiding below subflooring, under foundations, and in door and window frames. Sometimes it mottles walls in plain sight. And it can make dwellers sick, another blow to people still recovering from the October storm that sent the Atlantic surging into homes in New Jersey and New York.

    Mold is flourishing in homes that never completely dried out, where the owners may have waited to make repairs or could not access the house for weeks because of safety concerns. Other flooded homes remain vacant and unheated.

    But even some who quickly chucked saturated belongings, ripped out soggy wallboards and carpets and scrubbed walls with cleaners and bleach are still finding mold, because the home didn't fully dry, treatment did not work or unscrupulous contractors didn't actually kill it.

    "Mold needs two things. It needs food and it needs moisture," said Paul Lioy, a professor of environmental medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J. "So if you have places that aren't completely dried out, you're going to have conditions that are ripe for mold growth."

    Mold can spur coughing, wheezing and other reactions in people who are allergic or sensitive to it or have asthma, and can cause infections in people with chronic lung conditions.

    In 2004, the Institute of Medicine found "sufficient evidence" of a link between damp, moldy indoor environments and upper respiratory tract symptoms, coughing and wheezing in healthy people, and asthma symptoms in asthmatics.

    If mold is treated safely, there should be few long-term health effects, said Dr. Kevin Chatham-Stephens, a pediatrician and environmental health fellow at Mount Sinai Medical Center. But doing it yourself could make things worse. Chatham-Stephens said bleach and other chemicals used to clean mold can also cause respiratory irritation.

    Mold remediation can cost as much as $15,000 and require people to leave their homes for days. It is not directly covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or New York City's Rapid Repair program, which provides emergency repairs to residents affected by the storm.

    New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday announced a $15 million public-private partnership to remove mold in about 2,000 city homes. The money was raised privately, and the program will be run by a community development nonprofit. It will find homeowners through referrals, with the neediest families receiving priority. The city is also holding training sessions on how to deal with mold in the home.

    The program was launched by the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, the Red Cross and the Robin Hood Foundation.

    Joseph McKellar, executive director of Queens Congregations United for Action, said that the city's program is "a good first step," but that 2,000 homes is "really only a start."

    McKellar and other labor, faith and community leaders formed "Back Home, Back to Work," an organization that wants to use union members to clean out mold-infested homes in New York. The group is calling for part of the $50.5 billion emergency aid package passed by Congress to be used for mold remediation. Sen. Charles Schumer said he would like to see federal money allocated to fight mold.

    New Jersey is looking at opportunities for a similar program, said Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health. The state is waiting to see if grants from the aid package can be used to help residents fight mold.

    The Robin Hood Foundation also made grants to programs in New Jersey that provide free mold remediation to Sandy victims.

    Lioy worries the mold problem will only get worse in the spring and summer, when consistently warm temperatures will allow mold to flourish. Even warm days like Wednesday and Thursday, when temperatures reached into the 50s and 60s, can accelerate mold growth.

    Richard Schielke scrubbed the salt and mud off his hardwood floors after the storm but discovered weeks later that mold lurked under the floor. He hired a crew from Flag Enterprises, a Lindenhurst, N.Y., restoration services company. Workers scoured his moldy floor and walls and set up large air filters that hummed throughout his home.

    "There was no playbook saying, 'If this happens, this is what you should do,'" Schielke, of Massapequa, N.Y., said.

    Alyssa Durnien, of Keansburg, N.J., came back to her damaged house about 15 days after the storm and sprayed a mildew product on the wood and underbelly of her home, which had mold damage.

    Months later, the mold is back. Durnien set up dehumidifiers throughout the house and plans to hire a professional.

    "I can tell you," she said, "there's still mold there."

    RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Indelible Images from Superstorm Sandy

     

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