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Astronomy

9.2 The Lunar Surface

Astronomy9.2 The Lunar Surface
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Differentiate between the major surface features of the Moon
  • Describe the history of the lunar surface
  • Describe the properties of the lunar “soil”

General Appearance

If you look at the Moon through a telescope, you can see that it is covered by impact craters of all sizes. The most conspicuous of the Moon’s surface features—those that can be seen with the unaided eye and that make up the feature often called “the man in the Moon”—are vast splotches of darker lava flows.

Centuries ago, early lunar observers thought that the Moon had continents and oceans and that it was a possible abode of life. They called the dark areas “seas” (maria in Latin, or mare in the singular, pronounced “mah ray”). Their names, Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds), Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquility), and so on, are still in use today. In contrast, the “land” areas between the seas are not named. Thousands of individual craters have been named, however, mostly for great scientists and philosophers (Figure 9.6). Among the most prominent craters are those named for Plato, Copernicus, Tycho, and Kepler. Galileo only has a small crater, however, reflecting his low standing among the Vatican scientists who made some of the first lunar maps.

We know today that the resemblance of lunar features to terrestrial ones is superficial. Even when they look somewhat similar, the origins of lunar features such as craters and mountains are very different from their terrestrial counterparts. The Moon’s relative lack of internal activity, together with the absence of air and water, make most of its geological history unlike anything we know on Earth.

Sunrise on the Central Mountain Peaks of Tycho Crater. This compact mountain range casts a long shadow on the flat floor of Tycho in this image from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Figure 9.6 Sunrise on the Central Mountain Peaks of Tycho Crater, as Imaged by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Tycho, about 82 kilometers in diameter, is one of the youngest of the very large lunar craters. The central mountain rises 12 kilometers above the crater floor. (credit: modification of work by NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University)

Lunar History

To trace the detailed history of the Moon or of any planet, we must be able to estimate the ages of individual rocks. Once lunar samples were brought back by the Apollo astronauts, the radioactive dating techniques that had been developed for Earth were applied to them. The solidification ages of the samples ranged from about 3.3 to 4.4 billion years old, substantially older than most of the rocks on Earth. For comparison, as we saw in the chapter on Earth, Moon, and Sky, both Earth and the Moon were formed between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years ago.

Most of the crust of the Moon (83%) consists of silicate rocks called anorthosites; these regions are known as the lunar highlands. They are made of relatively low-density rock that solidified on the cooling Moon like slag floating on the top of a smelter. Because they formed so early in lunar history (between 4.1 and 4.4 billion years ago), the highlands are also extremely heavily cratered, bearing the scars of all those billions of years of impacts by interplanetary debris (Figure 9.7).

Photograph of Lunar Highlands. This image is dominated by countless overlapping craters of all sizes, which is typical of the Lunar highlands.
Figure 9.7 Lunar Highlands. The old, heavily cratered lunar highlands make up 83% of the Moon’s surface. (credit: Apollo 11 Crew, NASA)

Unlike the mountains on Earth, the Moon’s highlands do not have any sharp folds in their ranges. The highlands have low, rounded profiles that resemble the oldest, most eroded mountains on Earth (Figure 9.8). Because there is no atmosphere or water on the Moon, there has been no wind, water, or ice to carve them into cliffs and sharp peaks, the way we have seen them shaped on Earth. Their smooth features are attributed to gradual erosion, mostly due to impact cratering from meteorites.

Photograph of a Lunar Mountain. The smooth contour of Mt. Hadley is seen against the inky blackness of space.
Figure 9.8 Lunar Mountain. This photo of Mt. Hadley on the edge of Mare Imbrium was taken by Dave Scott, one of the Apollo 15 astronauts. Note the smooth contours of the lunar mountains, which have not been sculpted by water or ice. (credit: NASA/Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)

The maria are much less cratered than the highlands, and cover just 17% of the lunar surface, mostly on the side of the Moon that faces Earth (Figure 9.9).

Photograph of a Lunar Mare. Image of Mare Imbrium taken from Lunar orbit showing the smooth, little cratered surface typical of maria.
Figure 9.9 Lunar Maria. About 17% of the Moon’s surface consists of the maria—flat plains of basaltic lava. This view of Mare Imbrium also shows numerous secondary craters and evidence of material ejected from the large crater Copernicus on the upper horizon. Copernicus is an impact crater almost 100 kilometers in diameter that was formed long after the lava in Imbrium had already been deposited. (credit: NASA, Apollo 17)

Today, we know that the maria consist mostly of dark-colored basalt (volcanic lava) laid down in volcanic eruptions billions of years ago. Eventually, these lava flows partly filled the huge depressions called impact basins, which had been produced by collisions of large chunks of material with the Moon relatively early in its history. The basalt on the Moon (Figure 9.10) is very similar in composition to the crust under the oceans of Earth or to the lavas erupted by many terrestrial volcanoes. The youngest of the lunar impact basins is Mare Orientale, shown in Figure 9.11.

Photograph of a Lunar Rock. A sample of basaltic rock from the Lunar surface is shown, with the many holes left by gas bubbles giving the rock the appearance of a sponge.
Figure 9.10 Rock from a Lunar Mare. In this sample of basalt from the mare surface, you can see the holes left by gas bubbles, which are characteristic of rock formed from lava. All lunar rocks are chemically distinct from terrestrial rocks, a fact that has allowed scientists to identify a few lunar samples among the thousands of meteorites that reach Earth. (credit: modification of work by NASA)
Image of Mare Orientale. A huge impact basin not seen directly from Earth, with many terraced rings extending out about 500 km from the flat, lava-filled central basin.
Figure 9.11 Mare Orientale. The youngest of the large lunar impact basins is Orientale, formed 3.8 billion years ago. Its outer ring is about 1000 kilometers in diameter, roughly the distance between New York City and Detroit, Michigan. Unlike most of the other basins, Orientale has not been completely filled in with lava flows, so it retains its striking “bull’s-eye” appearance. It is located on the edge of the Moon as seen from Earth. (credit: NASA)

Volcanic activity may have begun very early in the Moon’s history, although most evidence of the first half billion years is lost. What we do know is that the major mare volcanism, which involved the release of lava from hundreds of kilometers below the surface, ended about 3.3 billion years ago. After that, the Moon’s interior cooled, and volcanic activity was limited to a very few small areas. The primary forces altering the surface come from the outside, not the interior.

On the Lunar Surface

“The surface is fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe. But I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine sandy particles.” —Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 astronaut, immediately after stepping onto the Moon for the first time.

The surface of the Moon is buried under a fine-grained soil of tiny, shattered rock fragments. The dark basaltic dust of the lunar maria was kicked up by every astronaut footstep, and thus eventually worked its way into all of the astronauts’ equipment. The upper layers of the surface are porous, consisting of loosely packed dust into which their boots sank several centimeters (Figure 9.12). This lunar dust, like so much else on the Moon, is the product of impacts. Each cratering event, large or small, breaks up the rock of the lunar surface and scatters the fragments. Ultimately, billions of years of impacts have reduced much of the surface layer to particles about the size of dust or sand.

Footprint on the Moon. Photograph of a single boot print in the grey Lunar soil.
Figure 9.12 Footprint on Moon Dust. Apollo photo of an astronaut’s boot print in the lunar soil. (credit: NASA)

In the absence of any air, the lunar surface experiences much greater temperature extremes than the surface of Earth, even though Earth is virtually the same distance from the Sun. Near local noon, when the Sun is highest in the sky, the temperature of the dark lunar soil rises above the boiling point of water. During the long lunar night (which, like the lunar day, lasts two Earth weeks1), the temperature drops to about 100 K (–173 °C). The extreme cooling is a result not only of the absence of air but also of the porous nature of the Moon’s dusty soil, which cools more rapidly than solid rock would.

Footnotes

  • 1 You can see the cycle of day and night on the side of the Moon facing us in the form of the Moon’s phases. It takes about 14 days for the side of the Moon facing us to go from full moon (all lit up) to new moon (all dark). There is more on this in Chapter 4: Earth, Moon, and Sky.
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