Forest Fires Rages In Indonesia.

Fires ravaged vast swathes of Indonesia this year.Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty

Indonesia fire analysis gets heated

How much did Indonesia burn this year? An international research organization has taken down an online report that suggested fires burnt more than 1.6 million hectares of land in the country in 2019, 40% more than the government calculated for the same period.

The Indonesian government had criticized the analysis, by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), saying that it relied on satellite data that hadn’t been confirmed with ground observations.

Raffles Panjaitan, director of forest and land-fire management at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in Jakarta, says the ministry used satellite data and ground observations to calculate that just under 950,000 hectares were burnt between January and October. The ministry relies on imagery from NASA’s Landsat 8 Earth-observation satellite.

CIFOR, based in Bogor, Indonesia, used time-series imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 Earth-observation satellites. On 6 December, the group removed the analysis from its blog, saying it should have had it peer reviewed before posting.

Three days earlier, CIFOR landscape ecologist David Gaveau had told Nature that the discrepancies might stem from differences in the satellite imagery the two groups used.

Science-funding pledges ahead of ‘Brexit election’

As Nature went to press, the United Kingdom’s three main political parties had each pledged to increase spending on science ahead of the 12 December general election, which was largely overshadowed by the country’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the election after Parliament was unable to agree on how to move forward in the wake of the Brexit vote.

During the campaign, the three main parties diverged widely on their plans for the impending divorce, with the Conservatives vowing to take the country out of the bloc by 31 January, Labour promising a second ‘people’s vote’ with an option to remain in the EU and the Liberal Democrats vowing to stop Brexit altogether.

The spectre of Brexit “looms large over science”, says James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, UK. As well as its wide political and economic effects, Brexit’s changes to freedom of movement and participation in EU programmes could have major impacts on scientists.

But although Brexit was the dominant campaign issue, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats had all promised in their manifestos to invest more money in research.

The United Kingdom currently spends about 1.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development, totalling about £7.5 billion (US$9.8 billion) per year.

The Conservative Party — whose manifesto mentioned the words ‘research’ and ‘science’ more times than ever before, and more than those of the other two main parties (see ‘Political push’) — was pressing for the lowest increase. It pledged to spend 2.4% of GDP on science.

The other two parties were targeting 3%, with Labour pledging to hit the goal by 2030 and “create an innovation nation”. The Liberal Democrats promised an “interim target” of 2.4% by 2027.

Source: Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat 2019 manifestos

Space telescope heralds new era of exoplanet science

The European Space Agency is set to launch an exoplanet telescope that will perform detailed studies of hundreds of known worlds beyond the Solar System. Called CHEOPS (Characterising Exoplanet Satellite), the €50-million (US$55-million) spacecraft is scheduled for launch from Kourou, French Guiana, on 17 December.

Equipped with a single camera, CHEOPS will peer at stars already known to host exoplanets. By observing the dip in the brightness of a star’s light as a planet passes in front of it, astronomers will work out the sizes of these worlds and study some of their atmospheres, providing crucial information on the formation and evolution of a variety of exoplanets. Over its 3.5-year scientific mission, which will begin in April 2020, the telescope will study between 300 and 500 worlds.

The telescope marks a departure from previous exoplanet missions because it is the first designed to study — rather than merely find — alien worlds. “We’re moving from discovery to characterization,” says Kate Isaak, a project scientist on the mission at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Artist's impression of CHEOPS

An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s Characterising Exoplanet Satellite, or CHEOPS.Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Cave hunt scene might be world’s oldest story

A cave painting in Indonesia portraying a hunt might be the oldest recorded story in human history. The scene — discovered in 2017 and now dated to at least 43,900 years ago — is more than 20,000 years older than depictions of clear narrative scenes in cave art from Europe, such as those found in the Lascaux Cave in France. One panel (pictured) from the Indonesian cave on Sulawesi shows a buffalo called an anoa being hunted by smaller figures that might be human–animal chimaeras. Such figures, also known as therianthropes, point to a human capacity to imagine and depict objects that do not exist in the natural world, says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, whose team described the art (M. Aubert et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1806-y; 2019). Previously, the oldest-known therianthrope was a 40,000-year-old human–lion ivory statue from Germany. The Sulawesi cave and its paintings were found by a local archaeologist and caver named Hamrullah. “We’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene,” adds Brumm.

Sulawesi hunting scene.

The painting might be the oldest recorded story in human history.Credit: Ratno Sardi

NASA images reveal crashed Indian Moon lander

Images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have been used to confirm the final resting place of India’s Moon lander, Vikram. The country’s space agency lost contact with the craft just moments before it was supposed to touch down on 7 September.

A few days later, the Indian Space Research Organisation said it had located the lander, but did not release any images of the site.

Just over two weeks after the mishap, the team that manages the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s camera posted on its website an image of Vikram’s intended landing site near the lunar south pole. It was then contacted by an engineer in Chennai, Shanmuga Subramanian, who had spotted features in the image that looked like debris.

The team was able to confirm that the features were debris from the craft by comparing a more detailed image taken before the landing with photos taken after. The photos reveal a large crater from the main impact and a trail of debris spread across several kilometres.

Vikram was supposed to touch down and explore the area nearby.

The craft was India’s first attempt to ‘soft’ land on the Moon, as part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission.

Pragyan Rover mounted on the ramp projecting from out of the sides of Vikram lander

India's Moon lander, Vikram, carried a small 4-wheeled rover.Credit: ISRO