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Gizmorama - October 3, 2016

Good Morning,

It appears that low-emission vehicle are coming down in price. Will that entice people to want to be more environmentally friendly while on the road?

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- Low-emissions vehicles cost less to drive, research shows --*

BOSTON - When electric and hybrid vehicles first came on the market, they were prohibitively expensive for many consumers. That's no longer the case.

More modestly priced low-emissions vehicles have since been introduced, and new research suggests the greenest cars are some of the cheapest options when operation and maintenance costs are considered.

"If you look in aggregate at the most popular vehicles on the market today, one doesn't have to pay more for a lower carbon-emitting vehicle," Jessika Trancik, a professor of energy studies at MIT's Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, told MIT News. "In fact, the group of vehicles at the lower end of costs are also at the lowest end of emissions, even across a diverse set of alternative and conventional engines."

Trancik and her colleagues recently tallied cost and emissions estimates of a 125 U.S. auto models. The cost of each car was calculated on a per-mile basis, accounting for both sticker price and maintenance costs over the lifetime of the vehicle. Emissions estimates included both greenhouse gas emissions during operation and those emitted during the production process.

"To enable a fair comparison between cars of all technologies, we include all emissions coming from the fuel, electricity, and vehicle production supply chains," said Marco Miotti, a doctoral student at IDSS.

Their analysis shows smaller electric and hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius are some of the least expensive vehicles to own and operate on a per-mile basis.

"Our results show that popular alternative-technology cars such as the Nissan Leaf can already save a considerable amount of emissions today, while being quite affordable when operating costs are considered," Miotti observes. "Notably, the benefit of the efficient electric powertrain far outweighs the added emissions of manufacturing a battery."

In addition to publishing their analysis in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the scientists incorporated their findings into a new mobile app aimed at helping consumers make better economic and environmental car-buying decisions.

"There are a lot of opportunities for decarbonization in the transportation sector," Trancik said. "It's fairly easy to buy a lower-emissions vehicle if you have easy access to this information."

The transportation sector accounts for roughly 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and cars, buses and smaller trucks are responsible for about 60 percent of those emissions. Researchers say more U.S. consumers need to adopt low-emissions vehicles if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided.

"To meet mid-century climate policy targets, what we would likely need to see is a near-complete electrification of vehicles within a few decades, alongside a decarbonization of electricity," Trancik concluded.

One way to make sure that happens, researchers say, is to give consumers the most accurate information.

*-- NASA presents new evidence of water plumes on Europa --*

WASHINGTON - Astronomers are now more confident that water and other liquids are present on the surface of Europa, and can be collected and studied by future NASA missions without drilling through layers of ice.

The heightened confidence is the result of new evidence of water plumes, revealed by NASA scientists during a press conference on Monday afternoon.

Over the last couple of decades, observations made by several NASA missions have hinted at the presence of a subsurface ocean on Europa, one of Jupiter's largest moons.

The latest evidence comes in the form of images collected by Hubble Space Telescope. The images show the absorption of ultraviolet wavelengths by what researchers believe are water plumes emanating from Europa's south pole.

"If there are plumes emerging from Europa, it is significant because it means we may be able to explore that ocean for organic chemicals or even signs of life without having to drill through unknown miles of ice," William Sparks, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, told New Scientist.

A single image captured in 2001 by NASA's Cassini orbiter revealed similar evidence of plumes on Europa, but followup attempts failed to locate the phenomenon.

In 2012, a team of researchers led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute found evidence of water vapor using Hubble. But Roth's team also found just one instance of plume activity, using a different observational strategy than did NASA scientists.

The new Hubble observations feature four separate instances of the phenomenon, captured in 2014 and 2015. On seven occasions, however, Hubble failed to find absorption of the same wavelengths. If the plumes are real, researchers say, they are intermittent -- perhaps seasonal.

Researchers detailed the additional plume images in a new paper, published this week in the Astrophysical Journal.

"Are they definitive? No. Are they compelling? Quite. Do we need missions to Europa to find out more about this beautiful little ocean world? Absolutely," Kevin Hand, one of the study's co-authors and a scientist with NASA, told National Geographic.

The best way to say for sure whether the ultraviolet phenomenon seen by Hubble is caused by water vapor expelled through cracks in Europa's ice is by direct sampling. But scientists say additional Hubble observations -- or analysis by another telescope -- could further increase the level of confidence among NASA scientists.

"Hubble's unique capabilities enabled it to capture these plumes, once again demonstrating Hubble's ability to make observations it was never designed to make," Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA headquarters, said in a news release. "This observation opens up a world of possibilities, and we look forward to future missions -- such as the James Webb Space Telescope -- to follow up on this exciting discovery."


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