Boeing Starliner (finally) limps into orbit

Engineers at Boeing can let out a big sigh of relief.

The defense contractor’s much-delayed Starliner spacecraft finally made its way into stable orbit Thursday evening, after launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the culmination of years of setbacks and complications.

But even in the course of that small victory, not everything went according to plan. Two of Starliner’s thrusters didn’t fire as planned just over 30 minutes into the flight. One thruster only managed to provide orbital insertion thrust for a single second. Its backup fired for 25 seconds before also giving up.

Fortunately, a third backup thruster was able to heave Starliner into stable orbit.

Boeing claims everything went as planned.

Oldest Poop DNA contains Neanderthal microbiome

Biologist Marco Candela and his colleagues recently sequenced ancient microbial DNA from 50,000-year-old Neanderthal feces found at the El Salt archaeological site in Spain. The sequences included DNA from several of the microbes that still call our intestines home, as well as a few that have nearly vanished from today’s urban dwellers. According to Candela and his colleagues, their results suggest that the microscopic population of our guts may have been with us since at least 500,000 years ago, in the era of our species’ last common ancestor with Neanderthals.

Mixed in with the layer of sediment that once formed the floor of a Neanderthal rock shelter in eastern Spain, archaeologists found millimeter-sized coprolites (fossil poop) and chemical signatures of human feces. An earlier study, published in 2014, sifted through the tiny coprolites to look for traces of Neanderthal diets. “These samples therefore represent, to our knowledge, the oldest known positive identification of human fecal matter,” wrote Candela and his colleagues.

They recently returned to El Salt for new samples, which they scoured for fragments of ancient DNA from the bacteria and other microbes that once lived in the intestines of Neanderthals. To weed out possible contamination, Candela and his colleagues sorted out the old, obviously degraded ancient DNA from the more pristine modern sequences. Most of the ancient DNA in the sediments came from bacteria that lived in the soil and water—tiny relics of the Pleistocene environment. But the rest included some familiar companions.

“There are probably more differences between the gut microbiomes from modern traditional (rural, hunter gatherers) populations and the modern industrial urban populations than between Neanderthal and modern traditional populations,” Candela, a biologist at the University of Bologna, told Ars.

That’s reassuring. I think.