I am on a trip to Nairobi and the region with my friend Mike. The idea is to spend a month exploring and chasing some story ideas we lined up ahead of time and find some new ones. I’ll post some nuggets of our adventures and observations along the way. For starters here’s a snap of Dubai, draped in fog:

And here is a toilet in the Vegas of the Middle East:

Finally, a canine baggage handler at in Nairobi:


On our first night in town we dined on sushi while listening to Cuban and later central African music with a Canadian colleague (whose family background is Indian) and her American colleague. As promised, Nairobi is cosmopolitan.

Ice may lurk in shadows beyond Moon’s poles

Water ice on the moon may be more widespread  than previously thought. Permanent shadows have been spotted far from the lunar poles, expanding the number of sites that would be good candidates for exploration by robotic rovers — or even for the locations of lunar bases.

Researchers have known for decades that the Moon’s poles host craters with lofty rims that shield their floors from sunlight, so searches for shadowed areas harbouring water ice have focused on the poles. But over the past few months, researchers have built a catalogue of permanently shadowed regions elsewhere on the Moon.

The team developed software called LunarShader to simulate lighting conditions on the Moon throughout its solar cycles. They fed in two topographical models — one from the Japanese spacecraft Kaguya, and one from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The software identified about 100 craters that should contain permanent shadows, located as many as 58 degrees of latitude from the pole in both hemispheres, reported team member Joshua Cahill, a space scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid this week. The result is being prepared for publication in Icarus, he said.

The findings are significant because they open “a much larger area where permanent manned stations could be established”, says Bruce Cutright, a hydrogeologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Water ice on the Moon exists in such low concentrations that any mission that seeks to study it, or to use it as a resource, will need a detailed map of its distribution.

Ice under ground

Cahill and his colleagues also took the candidate craters’ temperature using the LRO’s Diviner Lunar Radiometer instrument, to determine which sites are most likely to contain ice. The craters are only half the temperature of their better-lit surroundings, but they still reach an average of 175 kelvin — hot enough to boil water in the moon’s thin atmosphere — so any water ice must be insulated beneath the surface.

“While not as cold as the permanently shadowed regions near the poles, these non-polar areas offer a unique environment that may harbour volatiles,” says Emerson Speyerer, an engineer at Arizona State University in Tempe, who is part of another team that has identified persistent shadows at the lunar poles. That team is now characterizing other potential permanently shadowed regions using LRO data. They made a preliminary report at the March Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

Radar instruments on orbiting spacecraft allow some study of the ice, but close-up observations are needed to confirm any findings, says Speyerer. Some technological ingenuity will be required to allow the solar-powered rovers to operate in the shadowy depths of the craters. “A prospecting rover would be able to examine these features with the lower half of the rover in shadow, while the upper half and solar panel would remain illuminated,” says Speyerer.

Cahill’s group has also used LunarShader to identify which parts of the permanently shadowed regions would be most accessible to a rover. To explore the deepest craters, Cahill imagines rovers or landers with solar panels on a mast up to ten metres high, acting like a ‘solar snorkel’.

First published by Nature News [html] [pdf]


Machine Vision Sees Into Chickens’ Futures

A jump to the left and a step to the right are signs of healthy activity, as chicken farmers who stroll among their flocks already know. Now a team led by robotics engineer Stephen Roberts at the University of Oxford has found that patterns in the collective motion of a flock of chickens can help farmers predict disease weeks before onset. Call it a chicken time warp.

Roberts and animal-welfare researchers at Oxford first tested their pattern-detection system by asking it to warn farmers before a flock got “peckish.” That’s not a euphemism for “hungry.” Well-fed hens, it turns out, sometimes take out their worm-hunting instincts on one another. The system, which consisted of cameras recording a flock, followed by computer analysis of the footage, beat human experts at flagging the at-risk flocks before the madness took its toll [“Computer System Counters Hen Horrors,” September 2010].

Read the rest of this news story in IEEE Spectrum [html] [pdf]

How future urban sprawl maps out

Urbanization shapes the environment, but the way in which it does so depends on where and how cities grow. In an effort to forecast how urbanization over the next couple of decades might affect biodiversity and the carbon cycle around the world, researchers have made detailed predictions about how urban areas are likely to grow.

Urban growth is proceeding apace, with the biggest changes occurring in developing countries. The United Nations (UN) predicts that cities will absorb all of the world’s population growth — of around 2.3 billion people — in the next four decades. Yet population projections do not account for variations in how individual cities occupy their land, nor the impact they have on local ecosystems. So geographer Karen Seto of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and her colleagues looked more closely at how individual cities grow1. “We’re not forecasting population, we’re forecasting the expansion of urban space,” Seto says.

Read the rest of this news story at Nature News [html] [pdf]

Journalism from around the world