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For a ship on a mission of worldwide importance, the Yong Sheng is a distinctly unimpressive sight. The gray and green hull of the 19,000-ton cargo vessel, operated by China’s state-owned Cosco Group, is streaked with rust, while its cargo of steel and heavy equipment would best be described as prosaic.

Yet the Yong Sheng’s journey, which began on Aug. 8 from the northeastern Chinese port of Dalian, to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, is being watched with fascination by politicians and scientists.

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