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Planetary and Space Science 58 (2010) 724–731

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Racetrack and Bonnie Claire: southwestern US playa lakes as analogs

for Ontario Lacus, Titan
Ralph D. Lorenz a,b,, Brian Jackson b, Alex Hayes c
Space Department, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road, Laurel, MD 20723, United States
Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, United States
Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, United States

a r t i c l e in f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: We note the geomorphological and meteorological processes at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National
Received 30 January 2009 Park, as analogs for those at Ontario Lacus on Titan. Although Ontario is 50  larger, the planforms of
Received in revised form the two features are nearly identical, both are extremely flat, and are in environments where infrequent
6 May 2009
rainfall occurs against a climate, where evaporation exceeds precipitation. While the famous moving
Accepted 25 May 2009
rocks on the Racetrack Playa may be exceptional on the Earth, the lower gravity and thicker atmosphere
Available online 3 June 2009
may render wind-induced rock transport comparatively common on Titan. Nearby Bonnie Claire Playa
Keywords: also provides field insights into the interpretation of remote sensing data from Titan.
Titan & 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction shaped, 235 km long, and optically dark named Ontario Lacus, was
identified at about 721S, 1831W in Cassini near-infrared (0.94 mm)
The presence of liquid hydrocarbons on the Saturn’s moon images acquired by the Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS)
Titan exposes that world to geomorphological and meteorological in 2005 (Turtle et al., 2009—see Fig. 1). Ontario Lacus was
processes that have been heretofore considered only in the Earth subsequently observed by the Cassini Visible and Infrared
sciences. While the global oceans speculated upon in the 1980s Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) and was shown (Brown et al.,
(e.g. Lunine et al., 1983) are not present on Titan in the current 2008) to have at least some component of liquid ethane.
epoch, observations by the NASA-ESA Cassini-Huygens mission A morphological analysis of VIMS imagery at 2 mm (Barnes et al.,
have revealed river channels with rounded cobbles (e.g. Tomasko 2009) suggests that Ontario may have a ‘bathtub ring’ of lighter-
et al., 2005) as well as others with smooth, fine-grained and colored material, perhaps indicating that liquid is being removed
possibly muddy if not wet beds (Lorenz et al., 2008). Radar images from the lake, perhaps by evaporation. Some initial radar
indicate lakes and seas up to several hundred kilometre across, altimetry observations (Lorenz et al., 2009a) are consistent with
and at least a few tens of meters deep, in the north polar regions this picture—they show a specular reflection characteristic of
(e.g. Stofan et al., 2007; Paillou et al., 2008; Hayes et al., 2008). a very smooth liquid surface in some places, but evidence (lower
These lakes have a variety of morphologies (e.g. Mitchell et al., and variable backscatter) of exposed lakebed in others. Further,
submitted), from rather equant ponds sitting in steep-sided while the feature as a whole sits in a 300-m-deep depression, the
depressions suggestive of possible solution erosion, karst, or lake and exposed lakebed are exceptionally flat (see Fig. 2),
volcanic origin to larger, irregular-shaped lakes with gently consistent with a lake whose bed is dominated by sedimentation
sloping margins more consistent with flooded landscapes. and which is presently evaporating. Radar images have not yet
Radar imagery of the Titan’s southern high latitudes shows been acquired of Ontario, but are planned in mid and late 2009.
fewer lakes (Lopes et al., 2007), but a prominent feature, lake- In addition to the obvious interest in the Titan’s lakes as
analogs of terrestrial lakes, they are of interest in their own right
both as geophysical objects, and possibly as reservoirs of exotic
 Corresponding author at: Space Department, Johns Hopkins University Applied (Raulin, 1987), perhaps prebiotic chemistry (National Research
Physics Laboratory, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road, Laurel, MD 20723, United States.
Council, 2007) (Fig. 3).
Tel.: +1 443 778 2903; fax: +1 443 778 8939. Bourgeois et al. (2008) have suggested that small and medium-
E-mail address: (R.D. Lorenz). sized lakes on Titan may grow by regressive radial dissolution, i.e.

0032-0633/$ - see front matter & 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
R.D. Lorenz et al. / Planetary and Space Science 58 (2010) 724–731 725

by growing outwards when filled with liquid, and that processes

analogous to the formation of calcrete at the Etosha pan in
Namibia may occur on Titan (Calcrete, also known as caliche,
is a hard evaporitic layer formed by the deposition of calcium
minerals—on Titan, the chemistry would be very different, but the
physical results of precipitation of refractory organics dissolved in
methane might be similar—see e.g. Lorenz and Lunine, 1996).
While a number of large, occasionally flooded but dominantly
evaporitic basins exist on Earth (such as the Salar de Atacama,
100  80 km2, in Chile or the Etosha pan, 120 km) that are
comparable in scale with Ontario Lacus, we suggest here
that many of the same processes and landforms are particularly
accessible to most northern hemisphere planetary scientists at the
smaller Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, California.

2. Morphology and topography

Fig. 1. Left-section of a Landsat image of the Racetrack Playa, whose bright surface Racetrack is a 4  2.5 km2 playa that is flooded for perhaps a
is prominent. Note the various fluvial features draining onto the playa, in few days a year—see Lorenz et al. (2009b). The playa is somewhat
particular, the alluvial fan to the East (see profile in Fig. 3). Right-section of a famous for its ‘sliding rocks’—cobbles and boulders that are
near-infrared Cassini ISS image (Turtle et al., 2009) of Titan, showing Ontario apparently moved across the playa by wind when the playa is wet,
Lacus. A bright ring can be seen around the dark lake. Landsat 7 imagery of Death
Valley acquired June/July 2000, courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory.
leaving a trail in the soft playa mud (e.g. Kirk, 1952; Schumm,
1956; Sharp and Carey, 1976; Reid et al., 1995; Messina and Stoffer,
Despite the difference in scale, it is intriguing that there is a
remarkable similarity in the planform of Racetrack and Ontario
(Fig. 1). That planform in the case of Racetrack is evidently the
result of the surrounding mountains and the superposition of
several alluvial fans onto the playa. It is not yet possible, due
to the resolution of the images (several km, Turtle et al., 2009), to
determine whether a similar situation prevails at Ontario.
The Racetrack Playa can be completely flooded (see Section 3)
by a single rainstorm, since the difference in elevation between
one end of the playa and the other (4 km) is only 5–10 cm
(Stanley, 1955). This yields a slope of only 2  105 radians
(or 0.001 degree). In fact, even though Ontario Lacus is larger by
a factor of 50, it is also flat-altimetry data (Lorenz et al., 2009a)
suggests that over a 100 km transect, the elevation difference is
Fig. 2. Cassini Radar altimeter profile across Ontario Lacus in December 2008 (see at most 10 m, or a slope of 1 104 radians (0.005 degree). This
Lorenz et al., 2009a). The optically dark section (‘the lake’) runs 150–350 km and slope should be considered in the context of the once-per-Titan
lies in a 300 m deep depression. The section from 150 to 250 km is extremely flat day (15.945 earth days) tilt in local vertical of about 1 105
and may indicate a currently liquid surface, while the region from 250 to 350 km is radians, due to the Saturn’s gravitational tide. Put another way,
apparently rougher but at nearly the same elevation as the lake surface and may be
tides may cause a 1 m height variation across the lake during a
largely exposed lakebed. Note the smooth ramp from 50 to150 km.
Titan day, which could correspond to a horizontal movement
of the liquid edge by several km. Such a movement might
be detectable by remote observation by Cassini (this prospect was
considered by Lorenz (1994), but considering tidal flats with
slopes of 0.001 radians and thus a small (o1 km intertidal
range)—playa lakebeds and Ontario turn out to be considerably
flatter and the corresponding intertidal range wider, perhaps
observably so).

3. Precipitation and evaporation

It is often noted that liquid water is ‘unstable’ on the surface

of Mars. In fact, it is only metastable on the majority of the surface
of the Earth! The coexistence of liquid bodies on Earth with an
atmospheric humidity that is typically only 50–70%, attests to the
importance of disequilibrium. The metastability of surface liquid
is particularly evident in dry air near 301 latitude on Earth, where
most terrestrial deserts, and Death Valley, are found. A shallow
Fig. 3. Two transects from USGS topographic maps across Racetrack Playa—note
lake can evaporate completely in only a matter of days, and in so
the 100  change in horizontal scale from Fig. 2, although the basin depth is doing can be cooled relative to the air above it. (The significance of
comparable. Note also the profile of the alluvial fan at around 4 km (arrowed). disequilibrium and evaporative heat flux in arid regions has been
726 R.D. Lorenz et al. / Planetary and Space Science 58 (2010) 724–731

noted by the first author—the principal determinant of whether the region are such as to cause several centimetres of evaporation
the University of Arizona’s outdoor swimming pool felt cold on per day, such that when a rainstorm occurs, dumping the 10 cm
a given day in that dry, evaporative environment was whether it of liquid needed to completely flood the playa, it evaporates
was windy the previous day: typical expressions for evaporative within a few days. We have documented one such event (Lorenz
flux from exposed liquids have a dependence on wind speed et al., 2009a, b) with in-situ instrumentation.
raised to a power of between 0.75 and 1). The very shallow topography on the playa bed means that
The disequilibrium problem has only been significantly progressive drying does not necessarily lead to a shrinking of the
addressed for Titan by a single paper (Mitri et al., 2007) which flooded part towards the center, but rather some small regional
showed how evaporation – estimated from conventional Penman- tilt, accumulation of sediments, and/or wind stress pushes the
type flux relations (i.e. flux proportional to vapor pressure liquid to one edge (e.g. Figs. 4 and 5). In addition, giant dessication
difference) adapted from Earth – can cool Titan lakes by several polygons may cause regular patterns of wetter and dryer lakebed.
degrees relative to the atmosphere immediately above. This Also, on the Racetrack Playa there are a couple of sites where
cooling may indicate that the equilibrium assumption often used shallow gullying has occurred, where springs breach the playa
in global climate models (e.g. Rannou et al., 2006) may be surface and causing surface irregularities (e.g. Messina, 1998).
incorrect. An intriguing phenomenon was observed on a visit to nearby
The coupling between air temperature and water temperature the Bonnie Claire Playa. During a visit in December 2008, about a
can be highly variable over the seasons—a terrestrial example is week after a regional rainstorm, a thin strip of the playa was still
the variation seen in Canadian lakes (e.g. Bussieres and Granger, flooded. At the edge of this narrow pond, regularly-spaced shallow
2007). An interesting paradox in the present-day terrestrial drainage channels formed (Figs. 5 and 6).
climate is that pan evaporation is higher in winter than in the Thus, regularly-spaced channels may arise from spatial varia-
summer (e.g. Ohmura and Wild, 2002). Evidently, radiative heat tion inherent in landscape processes, without being ‘triggered’ by
flux and air temperature are not the controlling factors in localized sources such as springs or the mouth of external rivers.
evaporation on Earth, but rather the gustier winds and drier air In other words, surface heterogeneity and resultant remarkably
in winter predominate (for the effects of wind on water loss from regularly-spaced landforms can be emergent, an example of
playa lakes see e.g. Torgersen, 1984). A complicating factor in spontaneous pattern formation, as is often observed in other
saline playa lakes is that the high salt content may reduce the physical systems. The radar reflectivity of the eastern part of
water vapor pressure above it below the saturation value—the Ontario Lacus displays strong variability, yet its elevation remains
relatively involatile solute ethane may similarly retard evapora- constant (to 10 m) over some 200 km. One possible cause for
tion of methane in the Titan’s lakes. the variability is the presence of channels like those shown here.
If Ontario is predominantly filled with (relatively involatile) We make a final remark about the playa texture as it relates to
ethane, it may not change at all on observable timescales. On the Titan remote sensing. In addition to or instead of large-scale
other hand, seasonal and secular change on observable (years) dessication features, small dessication polygons (2–10 cm?) can
timescales may occur if methane makes up much of the liquid. On form as the playa mud dries out. These are particularly prominent
a global average basis, methane precipitation on Titan must be and regular at the Racetrack and Bonnie Claire (see Figs. 7 and 8).
limited over the long term to 1–2 cm per Earth year, simply Not enough is known about Titan surface materials to guess
because the energy per unit area required to re-evaporate that whether analogous features might form, but it is worth noting
amount of rainfall would require all the solar heating available for that these features are at the scale of a radar wavelength
convection (Lorenz, 2000). However, this large-scale average may (the Cassini radar operates at Ku band, with a wavelength of
be exceeded at some latitudes at the expense of others (e.g. 2.2 cm), and thus may affect (increase) quite profoundly the radar
Rannou et al., 2006, predict as much as 1 m/yr at high latitudes). backscatter of the dry playa surface. Archer and Wadge (1998) and
Nonetheless, fluvial channels have been observed at all latitudes, Wadge and Archer (2003) discuss the monitoring by radar
suggesting that while precipitation may be favoured at high imaging at C-band (5.7 cm wavelength) of the Chott el Djerid
latitudes, in particular, (where rapidly—evolving clouds have been playa in Tunisia, and note a roughly logarithmic dependence of the
observed in summer, e.g. Brown et al., 2002) it has rained, backscatter on the surface roughness, with backscatter at 20–261
sometime, everywhere. incidence of 5 to 10 dB for saline pan with root-mean-square
Models show that individual rainstorms on Titan can dump up roughness of 44 mm, compared with backscatter of o25 to
to a few meters of rainfall in a single event (e.g. Hueso and 10 dB for dry mudflats with surface height variation of o2 mm.
Sánchez-Lavega, 2006), but clearly the energy limit above requires
that century-long droughts must be interspersed among these
rare but heavy downpours. Mitri et al. (2007) have calculated local 4. Wind ‘set-up’
evaporation rates for methane lakes on Titan, and determine
values of the order of 1–10 m/yr, depending on wind speed Wind interacts with surface materials in a variety of ways.
(0.1–1 m/s). Thus a likely scenario appears to be occasional The most familiar products of this interaction on Earth are ocean
rainstorms that flood terrain to some meters or tens of meters waves and sand dunes. To date, liquid surfaces on Titan show
of depth (depending on the size of the watershed feeding basins), every indication (e.g. Stofan et al., 2007; Brown et al., 2008) of
and then progressive drying-out over some years or decades. If being very smooth, without any report of corrugation by wind-
rainfall over the watersheds of Titan lakes like Ontario occurs each generated waves. Lorenz et al. (2005) noted that the parameters
year, it may be that the lake is flooded for part of the year before for wind generation (gravity, surface tension, and viscosity, as well
drying up. On the other hand, if rain is more sporadic, the lake as the densities of both atmosphere and liquid) are all different,
may be flooded for a few years or decades, then the lake floor may making problematic the scaling of what are often rather empirical
remain dry for decades or centuries. terrestrial wind–wave relationships. Thus, it is not yet possible to
This closely parallels the situation at the Racetrack Playa, albeit interpret the apparent absence of waves so far observed, into a
with very different spatial and temporal scales. The climate of limit on near-surface wind speeds.
Death Valley as a whole is reviewed in Roof and Callagan (2003). A somewhat less familiar effect of wind stress on lakes is the
Annual rainfall in the region is typically about 15 cm per year, of so-called ‘wind set-up’. Considering this to first order as a static
which several centimetres may fall in a single storm. Conditions in equilibrium, the wind stress can be thought of as being balanced
R.D. Lorenz et al. / Planetary and Space Science 58 (2010) 724–731 727

Fig. 4. The Racetrack Playa on December 4, 2008, about one 1 week after a regional rainstorm. Image is looking northwest across the playa, of which a 200 m wide strip at
the edge is flooded. In the absence of wind-driven waves, the transient lake surface is a near-perfect mirror. Photo by Ralph Lorenz.

Fig. 5. Transient lake at the edge of the Bonnie Claire Playa, December 2008. The lake is about 15 m wide and over 100 m long. Note that the lake is at the edge of the playa
(as for Racetrack Playa in Fig. 4), and thus with a steep slope at the left (north) and a very shallow one in the lakebed at right. The lake surface beyond about 1 m from the
edge is rippled by the capillary waves (wind was coming towards the camera). Note the regularly-spaced channels at the right.

by a slight gradient in the surface height of the liquid. The classic numerical model how wind across a lake surface (nominally Lake
paper on wind stress on lakes is that of Van Dorn (1953), who set Ontario, Earth!) will develop a longshore current in the shallow
up some instrumentation around an 800-ft model-yacht pond and margins of the lake, while the return flow takes place in the
measured the level changes corresponding to different winds. In deeper parts of the center of the lake.
practice, of course, a steady wind transfers some momentum into In an arbitrarily shallow lake (such as a flooded playa), the
the liquid, and a circulation pattern develops in the lake itself. effects of wind stress may be profound. It is known anecdotally
Bennett (1974) describes, with both a linear analytical and a that when the Racetrack Playa is incompletely filled with water,
728 R.D. Lorenz et al. / Planetary and Space Science 58 (2010) 724–731

Fig. 6. View from uphill on the Bonny Claire Playa (i.e. looking from the left of Fig. 5 to its right) to highlight the regular spacing and size of the drainage channels.

Fig. 7. A rock (20 cm at its base) on the Racetrack Playa, with a trail behind. Note fractures in the rock, the flat floor of the trail and ramparts to either side, and slight
disturbance in front of the rock. The playa has a very regular pattern of 3 cm dessication cracks.

the ‘puddle’ can be blown around at some speed by the wind from (Bacon et al., 1996) report an even smaller value (0.1 mm) for the
one end of the playa to the other. Owens dry lake. With such low roughness lengths (and we expect
As a result of the smoothness of the playa’s surface, the similar values for the Racetrack Playa), the wind speed 10 cm
aerodynamic boundary layer above a playa may be very thin, and above the surface is only reduced by 10–50% of the value at a
a puddle in the center of the playa may experience unusually typical anemometer height.
strong winds. Measurements of near-surface wind profiles have The combination of atmospheric and gravitational parameters
been made at other playa locations : (Lorenz et al., 2006) used fits on Titan (see Section 5) are such that wind stress effects on
of a three-anemometer array to determine an aerodynamic puddles may be very significant on Titan, although such effects
roughness length of 5 mm at the Willcox Playa in Arizona, and have not yet been observed. Nonetheless, the Racetrack and
R.D. Lorenz et al. / Planetary and Space Science 58 (2010) 724–731 729

of 3, the threshold wind speed for a given rock size d is lower on
Titan than Earth by a factor of (4  7  3)0.5 ¼ 9. For a 10 cm rock,
the corresponding threshold wind speeds are 51 and 5.4 m/s on
Earth and Titan, respectively. It is, however, impossible to say how
frequently such winds might be encountered on Titan—indeed the
statistics of extreme winds are not well-known at the Racetrack
Playa as yet. Winds measured by the Huygens probe near the
Titan’s surface at low latitudes were only 0.3 m/s (Bird et al.,
2005). In addition, the global presence of dunes on Titan suggests
that particle-lofting winds of 1 m/s operate as long as the dunes
are active (Lorenz et al. 2006).
One factor that has been suggested (e.g. Reid et al., 1995) to
reduce the wind speed needed to push rocks across the playa is
the formation of an ice ‘sail’ around a rock, to increase its effective
drag area. There remains debate as to whether such ice is
absolutely required to enable rock motion, but it clearly can
facilitate it. While famous for its high temperatures, the dry air in
the Death Valley can allow temperatures to drop significantly
during winter nights, and in-situ measurements (Lorenz et al.,
2009b) show that at the Racetrack Playa (at an elevation of
1300 m) the temperatures can drop below freezing for some 50
nights in a year. The closed basin surrounded by mountains likely
acts as a sump for cold air (as observed elsewhere, e.g. Clements
et al., 2003), and blocks direct sunlight when the sun is low in
the southern sky in winter. Thus, freezing of water surfaces can
readily occur during winter.
Mitri et al. (2007) and Tokano (2009) have noted that freezing
due to evaporative cooling could occur in methane lakes on Titan.
Fig. 8. Rock Trail at the Bonnie Claire Playa, near the road looking West. Note that a However, this process cannot enhance rock transport in the same
10-m-wide border of pebbles on the playa exists at this edge, suggesting that
way as on Earth, since unlike water, with its exceptional proper-
small rocks are systematically transported towards this edge.
ties, methane is more dense in the solid form than the liquid.
Thus, methane ice sinks as it forms and so ice sails at the surface
of the liquid are unlikely to form around partly-submerged rocks.
Since the conditions for rock transport at the Racetrack are not
Bonnie Claire make useful pedagogical sites to stimulate discus- known, it is difficult to make a confident assessment whether
sion about wind stress effects. analogous processes are significant or even possible on Titan.
Nonetheless, the striking rocks and trails at the Racetrack may
make a useful feature to stimulate pedagogical discussion on
5. Rock transport at racetrack and on Titan comparative planetary environments, and the physics of transport
The most famous features of the Racetrack Playa are the
rocks upon it and the evidence that they occasionally move, a
phenomenon that seems improbable given familiar experience. 6. Conclusions
We note that the trails of moving rocks can be seen, somewhat
more conveniently albeit less spectacularly, at the Bonnie Claire No terrestrial location can be a complete analog for Titan, given
Playa in Nevada, just outside the Death Valley National Park. Such that conditions and working materials are so different on that
trails were documented at the Bonnie Claire after a rainstorm by remote world. However, many terrestrial lakes and ephemeral
Clements (1952). playa lakes have useful similarities with conditions believed to
Two features of the Titan environment that have major effects pertain to some of the Titan’s lakes. In particular, the timescales
on transport processes are its high atmospheric density ra and for fill and evaporation for playa lakes are short compared with
low gravity g. A further factor is the lower density r of likely other competing geomorphological processes, a condition that
crustal materials (organics and ice, with a density of 1000 kg/m3 may prevail at at least some lakes on Titan, like Ontario Lacus. In
as against typical terrestrial rocks of 2700 kg/m3). this regard, the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park is a
If we assume the resistance to motion of a rock is from static compelling analog site in its shape, topography, and processes; it
friction (i.e. ignoring dynamic effects and adhesion of mud etc.), is furthermore reasonably well-documented in the literature
with a coefficient of friction m, and assume a roughly cubic rock owing to the exotic rock transport processes, and is comparatively
shape, then the resistance force R to be overcome is R ¼ Mgm, with accessible for field visits.
The aerodynamic drag on a body in the boundary layer is
potentially complex to model accurately, but a free-stream drag Acknowledgements
can be considered for the purpose of exposition. At the relevant
Reynolds numbers, a drag coefficient Cd of 0.5 can be assumed. RL acknowledges the partial support of the Cassini program.
The drag D ¼ 0.5Cdd2 raV2, where V is the wind speed. At the Field test of meteorological instrumentation at the playa has been
threshold of motion, D ¼ R, or V ¼ (2rdgm/Cdra)0.5. Thus, since the supported by the NASA Applied Information Systems Research
surface gravity on Titan is lower by a factor of 7, the atmospheric program and the assistance of David Ek, Wilderness Resources
density higher by a factor 4, and the rock density lower by a factor Coordinator at Death Valley National Park in conducting those
730 R.D. Lorenz et al. / Planetary and Space Science 58 (2010) 724–731

in-situ measurements is acknowledged. BJK acknowledges a Brown, R.H., Soderblom, L.A., Soderblom, J.M., Clark, R.N., Jaumann, R., Barnes, J.W.,
research grant from the Geological Society of America, Sotin, C., Buratti, B., Baines, K.H., Nicholson, P.D., 2008. The identification of
liquid ethane in Titan’s Ontario Lacus. Nature 454, 607–610.
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Cassini RADAR team whose efforts yielded the altimetric profile Clements, C.B., Whiteman, C.D., Hotel, J.D., 2003. Cold-air-pool structure and
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Appendix: A note on science at the playa
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Field Testing and Dynamic Model Development for a Mars Tumbleweed Rover,
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In: Proceedings of the Fourth International Planetary Probe Workshop,
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