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Two Viking burials, separated by an ocean, contain close kin



Ida Marie Odgaard AFP

Roughly a thousand years ago, a young man in his early 20s met a violent end in England. 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, in Denmark, an older man who had survived a lifetime of battles died sometime in his 50s. At first glance, there’s nothing to suggest a connection between them over such a distance. But according to a recent study of their DNA, the two men were second-degree relatives: half-siblings, uncle and nephew, or grandfather and grandson.

Today, their skeletons lie side-by-side in the National Museum of Denmark, reunited after centuries, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

Geneticists sequenced the pair’s DNA as part of a much larger study, which sampled and sequenced ancient DNA from more than 400 human skeletons at sites across Europe and Greenland. That data revealed that Vikings were much more ethnically diverse than historians have often assumed, and it helped track the migrations that defined the Viking Age. Against the backdrop of those larger patterns, the ancient DNA from two skeletons, buried hundreds of kilometers apart under very different circumstances, told a much more personal story.

“This is a big discovery because now you can trace movements across space and time through a family,” Jeannette Varberg of the National Museum of Denmark said.

Given what is known about the Viking Age, it’s easy to imagine at least the broad strokes of this family’s story. The 50-year-old may have been a veteran of raids along the coast of continental Europe, or a returning veteran of raids on the British Isles; his bones showed evidence of old, long-healed wounds sustained in combat. But he lived to a relatively old age for his time and occupation (as they say, beware an old man in a profession where men usually die young).

The 20-year-old may have may have died during a raid on the English coast, or he may have been caught up in King Ethelred II’s 1002 CE purge of Danes living in England. He ended up in a mass grave in Oxford, England, with his skull shattered by the blows that killed him. It’s reasonable to speculate that the two men knew each other, or at least knew of each other, but there’s not enough evidence for archaeologists to say whether they lived at the same time, or which of them was born first.

“It’s very difficult to tell if they lived in the same age or they differ maybe by a generation, because you have no material in the grave that can give a precise dating,” Varberg said.

It’s plausible that the young man who died in England went to battle with thoughts of impressing a sibling, an uncle, or a grandfather back in Denmark; perhaps they fought side-by-side, or perhaps he was hoping to live up to his elder’s stories. Then again, it’s equally plausible that the veteran warrior who died in Denmark remembered the stories of a sibling or older relative who died in battle far to the west.

Either way, the pair of warriors are an excellent reminder of what ancient DNA—and archaeology, more generally—can tell us about the past, from sweeping large-scale patterns of human movements to the much more personal lives of individual people and families. And once in a great while, both kinds of stories emerge from the same study.

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Missouri AG wages war on masks as state blazes with delta cases



Enlarge / Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General.

Missouri has been one of the hardest-hit states so far in these early days of a delta-fueled COVID-19 surge. Cases increased nearly 500 percent since the start of July, while vaccinations stalled. Right now, with just 41 percent of the state fully vaccinated, 112 of the state’s 114 counties have high or substantial levels of coronavirus spread. Hospitalizations are up statewide, and some facilities have already run out of ventilators and seen intensive care units hit maximum capacity. Deaths are also increasing, with more than 300 people losing their lives this month since July 1. And the proportion of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is still rising, suggesting that things will likely only get worse in the weeks to come.

By nearly every metric, this entirely preventable surge is tragic. Yet, it hasn’t stopped the Show Me State’s Republican attorney general, Eric Schmitt, from waging war on local health restrictions aimed at trying to curb transmission. On Monday, Schmitt filed a lawsuit to stop St. Louis County and St. Louis City from enforcing mask mandates for fully vaccinated people and children, which took effect that day.

The timing of the lawsuit is awkward. It partly rests on now-outdated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in most indoor settings. “The Mask Mandates are arbitrary and capricious because they require vaccinated individuals to wear masks, despite the CDC guidance that this is not necessary,” the lawsuit claims. The rest of the lawsuit didn’t argue that masks were ineffective at curbing transmission but rather claimed that they were unnecessary for children—despite that they are largely ineligible for vaccinations—and that requiring them is “unconstitutional.” Otherwise, the lawsuit nitpicked language of the mandates, such as alleging that they didn’t define the word “dwelling.”

The CDC reversed its mask policy Tuesday, citing evidence that even fully vaccinated people are catching and spreading the hypertransmissible delta coronavirus variant—though at much lower frequencies than unvaccinated people. The agency now recommends universal masking in K-12 schools and that fully vaccinated people mask in indoor public settings when local transmission is high or substantial. Both the city and county of St. Louis have high levels of COVID-19 transmission, as defined by the CDC.

Lies and freedoms

Still, Schmitt is not backing down. Though his office did not immediately respond to a request from Ars, Schmitt took to Twitter and Fox News to blast the CDC’s update.

“People are tired of being lied to by elites & the ruling class,” Attorney General Schmitt, who is also running for US Senate, tweeted on Tuesday evening. “We were told—get vaccinated and you don’t have to wear a mask. Now the vaccinated are forced to wear masks in St. Louis. Kids forced to wear masks too. The lies go on and on.”

On Wednesday, Kansas City’s Democratic Mayor Quinton Lucas announced that he, too, would reinstate an indoor mask mandate in the city for all persons aged five and older, regardless of vaccination status. And Schmitt quickly said that he would sue to stop that mandate as well.

“To the great people of Kansas City: I will be filing a lawsuit to protect your freedoms,” Schmitt tweeted Wednesday. This mask mandate is about politics & control, not science. You are not subjects but citizens of what has been the freest country in the world & I will always fight for you.”

It’s unclear how the lawsuits will pan out, but Mayor Lucas has already noted that he intends to put up a fight of his own. A press release from his office stated:

In light of recent litigation between the State of Missouri and the City and County of St. Louis, Mayor Lucas will also introduce a resolution in the weeks ahead for City Council support of emergency actions. Mayor Lucas stands with Mayor Tishaura Jones and County Executive Sam Page in protecting Missourians from the spread of COVID-19.

In St. Louis, County Executive Page also stood behind the mask mandate. The courts will decide its fate, he said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but “until then, the law stands.” Page argued that masks are necessary to help lower transmission as more people get vaccinated. “These cases, and this curve is shooting straight up,” he said. “And if we don’t make some decisions fast, we’re going to be in a bad spot.”

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A global index to track the health of tropical rainforests



We’ve known for decades that tropical rainforests are special. They’re nearly unrivaled in biodiversity, and research has shown that they absorb more carbon dioxide than any other ecosystem. A recent study showed that the tropics sequester four times as much carbon dioxide as temperate and boreal ecosystems combined—and several studies have estimated that all terrestrial ecosystems combined sequester as much as 30 percent of the total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere each year.

We’ve also known for decades that these ecosystems are at risk of vanishing. As much as 20 percent of tropical rainforests have been cleared in the last 30 years, with an additional 10 percent lost to degradation. Beyond these direct threats, forests worldwide, and especially rainforests, are experiencing severe losses due to climate change—notably higher temperatures and drought.

Until now, there haven’t been means to systematically keep tabs on the health of these critical ecosystems. But a collaboration of nearly 50 institutions has recently developed a comprehensive index to measure the health and vulnerability of all tropical rainforests around the world. The result is a potential warning system that allows scientists and policymakers to monitor and prioritize which forests are at the highest risk of irreversible damage and loss.

“Rainforests regulate the Earth’s climate; if they cannot function well—the patterns of climate will change almost everywhere on Earth,” says lead author Sassan Saatchi of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and the Institute of Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If we lose the ability of the tropical forests to function normally, for example absorb the carbon from the atmosphere, it may mean that all of the efforts we’re doing in terms of climate change mitigation may become moot.”

Preventing tipping points

This new tropical forest vulnerability index (TFVI) combines close to a dozen data sets spanning up to 37 years of measurements (1982–2018). Past efforts have focused on limited regions or have largely relied on fieldwork, but the TFVI brings together a wide range of available measurements and models of rainforest stresses and responses.

Stress measurements included climate data about temperature, the dryness of the air (vapor pressure deficit), and the amount of water entering and leaving each system (the water balance). Responses included tree cover, carbon storage, above-ground biomass, productivity, and evapotranspiration—the amount of water that each system exchanges with the atmosphere during photosynthesis. Available measurements also included an existing biodiversity index and the temperature of the land surface or, in forests, the temperature of the tree and leaf surfaces. In addition, models and satellite data were calibrated with ground readings as much as possible.

When combined, these measurements give a historical record of the overall health and functioning of rainforests around the world over the past several decades. From this, it’s possible to see how much stress different forests have survived in the past and to flag current and future stress readings that are far outside of past variations. The researchers suggest that too many stresses may create feedback loops that lead to tipping points, beyond which a forest will no longer recover, and the damage will become irreversible. Such tipping points can be rapid and cause mass tree deaths, or they can trigger relatively gradual transitions to a different ecosystem type, like a savanna.

Global rainforest health check

Based on current measurements, the index shows that forests in the Amazon are particularly vulnerable, while African forests in the Congo Basin are more resilient. The authors suspect this may be due to less development in the Congo Basin, as well as a history of more frequent droughts there. Forests in Asia are particularly threatened by land use and forest fragmentation.

The intention of the index is to help the early identification of forests that are in the most need of additional protections, as well as to provide specific guidance on exactly which stress factors the forests are experiencing. While some interventions, like slowing climate change, may require longer-term solutions, others—like forest fragmentation—could be managed with restoration projects.

The authors were also careful to include measures of uncertainty throughout the index, and the code for the index is freely accessible so that anyone can use it and, hopefully, improve upon it as well. Every month, the index is updated with the latest data, and the team expects to launch an online version in the next year.

“This index is not the ultimate answer. One of the biggest caveats is that, as much as we know about the ecosystem, we are always surprised how the ecosystem works, and it can still become vulnerable to something that we don’t know about, or it may become resilient to something that we thought it has been vulnerable to,” says Saatchi. “But this is a work in progress, and the more knowledge we gain in terms of the function of these ecosystems, the better we can predict which direction they’ll go. The index will help us to continuously take the pulse of global rainforests as their health is changing.”

Science Advances, 2021. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe9829

K.E.D. Coan is a freelance journalist covering climate and environment stories at Ars Technica. She has a PhD in chemistry and chemical biology.

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Rocket Lab not yet close to profitability, proxy statement reveals



Enlarge / Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab, is seen as essential to Rocket Lab’s success.

Rocket Lab

Running a rocket launch company is an expensive proposition. You need hundreds of employees, lots of expensive machines and tooling, plenty of hardware, and at least one launch site. To make matters worse, for a purely commercial launch firm like Rocket Lab, you typically only get paid when you deliver someone’s satellite into orbit.

So it is perhaps no surprise that the US-based company, which launches from New Zealand and has about 600 employees, has been losing a lot of money. According to a new proxy statement, Rocket Lab experienced net losses of $30 million and $55 million in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Given the company’s financial position, an independent auditor, according to the proxy statement, “expressed substantial doubt” about Rocket Lab’s “ability to continue as a going concern.”

These are the kinds of details we rarely see in the often financially opaque launch business, but as part of the process of converting into a publicly traded Special Purpose Acquisition Company, Rocket Lab had to make extensive financial disclosures. The full 712-page document can be downloaded here.

Rocket Lab reported revenue of $48 million in 2019 and $35 million in 2020. The decrease last year was due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company said. It has contracts for 15 additional Electron launches for this year and beyond, valued at $127 million in launch and space systems revenue.

As of March 31 of this year, Rocket Lab has $34.2 million of cash and cash equivalents on hand. In addition to this, the company said it has access to both a $35 million revolving line of credit and a $100 million secured loan with Hercules Capital that is not repayable until June 2024. Rocket Lab acknowledged that there may be a fairly long pathway to profitability.

“We expect to continue to incur net losses for the next several years and we may not achieve or maintain profitability in the future,” the proxy statement says. “We believe there is a significant market opportunity for our business, and we intend to invest aggressively to capitalize on this opportunity.”

These financial losses may not cool the ardor of investors in Vector Acquisition Corporation, which is seeking to merge with Rocket Lab later this summer. Shareholders in Vector are due to vote on the proposed merger at a meeting on August 20. This merger will provide Rocket Lab with about $500 million in cash.

One reason investors will probably still be interested in Rocket Lab is that, unlike a lot of the space companies that have recently gone the SPAC route to become publicly traded, the launch company has solid revenue, demonstrated hardware, and a path toward growing its business.

Rocket Lab is already working to expand beyond small launch, including building its own satellites, performing satellite servicing in orbit, and building a medium-lift rocket called Neutron with a reusable first stage. In the proxy statement, Rocket Lab noted that Neutron has lift capacity of up to 8 metric tons to low-Earth orbit, 2 tons to the Moon, and 1.5 tons to Mars and Venus. Its first launch may occur as early as 2024.

Neutron, the company said, “will enable significantly higher revenue per launch with its capability to deploy larger spacecraft and greater numbers of spacecraft per launch as compared to our Electron launch vehicle, and will also be capable of supporting crewed flight and cargo resupply to the International Space Station.”

In terms of risks, the company cited the unexpected but potential loss of Peter Beck as its leader. Fiery, charismatic, and demanding of his employees, Beck has relentlessly promoted the Rocket Lab brand publicly and been a key driver of its technological innovation, the company said.

“We are highly dependent on the services of Peter Beck, our President, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman,” the proxy statement said. “Mr. Beck is the source of many, if not most, of the ideas and execution driving our company. If Mr. Beck were to discontinue his service to us due to death, disability or any other reason, we would be significantly disadvantaged.”

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