Water Detected on Planet Inside the Habitable Zone for the First Time


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The astronomers who comb through data on planetary surveys looking for potentially habitable planets are searching for worlds with certain specific characteristics. We assume that any planet capable of supporting life has to exist within the habitable zone (also sometimes called the “Goldilocks zone”) of its host star. Too close to the star and you bake, too far away and you’ll freeze. Liquid water is considered another key component required for life as we know it to exist. (Ammonia-based life has been theorized, but not yet demonstrated to be able to exist).

Astronomers now believe they’ve detected liquid water in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of its parent star. The planet, K2-18b (aka EPIC 201912552 b) orbits its red-dwarf star every 33 days. The red dwarf K2-18 is roughly 111 light-years from Earth and is ~2.7 percent as luminous as our own sun. The habitable zones of red dwarves are close to the star for this reason, and the authors note that the equilibrium temperature on K2-18b could be quite similar to Earth’s. The equilibrium temperature of a planet is the temperature it would have if it were a black body heated only by its star. The presence of an atmosphere and associated greenhouse effect means the actual temperature on the planet can be quite different from the equilibrium temperature.

HabitableZones

The habitable zone of certain planets, Earth, and Mars for reference. K2-18b not shown above.

What the scientists are saying with this measurement is that Earth and this other planet start in roughly the same place, as far as their respective equilibrium temperatures are concerned (Earth is 257K, this K2-18b is 265K +/- 5K). The total amount of solar irradiation that Earth and K2-18b receive is approximately equal. The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, notes that K2-18b is the least-massive planet to ever be detected with water vapor in its atmosphere.

“The water vapor detection was quite clear to us relatively early on,” lead author Björn Benneke, a professor at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Université de Montréal, told Space.com in an interview. So he and his colleagues developed new analysis techniques to provide evidence that clouds made up of liquid water droplets likely exist on K2-18 b. “That’s in some ways the ‘holy grail’ of studying extrasolar planets … evidence of liquid water,” he said.

K2-12b probably isn’t habitable, at least not for humans. While the atmosphere contains water vapor, there’s evidence suggesting it’s quite thick, and that the planet may not have a surface in the first place.

While the study we’ve been discussing has not yet been peer-reviewed, Nature Astronomy has published the results of a different second study, which also confirms the presence of water vapor in K2-18b’s atmosphere. The lead scientist on the second study, Giovanna Tinetti, called these results “mind-blowing.”

“This is the first time that we have detected water on a planet in the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is potentially compatible with the presence of life,” she said.

We may not be flying off to explore K2-18b just yet — but now that we’ve found water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting inside a red dwarf’s habitable zone, we’re one step closer to finding a world that can work for creatures like ourselves. The James Webb Space Telescope, when it finally comes online, should be well-suited for exploring exoplanets like these.

Feature image by the ESA / UCL. 

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MIT Creates Light-Sensitive ‘Reprogrammable’ Ink



You probably had to agonize over colors the last time you bought a car, a pair of shoes, or anything else where color matters. What if you didn’t have to pick a single color, though? Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a new color-changing ink that you can “reprogram” with light to produce different colors and patterns. Best of all, you can change the colors as many times as you want. 

MIT calls this “PhotoChromeleon” ink, and it’s a mix of multiple polychromatic dyes that can be spray-painted on almost any object. The team started by mixing standard automotive lacquer with cyan, yellow, and magenta polychromatic dyes. Each individual dye changes color when exposed to UV light. 

When you mix all three dyes together, you have a paint that can produce a wide range of colors. By understanding how each dye reacts to light, the researchers are able to precisely control each color channel. It’s similar to the way a modern inkjet printer uses individual cartridges of cyan, magenta, and yellow ink to create almost any shade you want. 

The team tested the programmable ink on various objects like a show, a phone case, and a (quite fittingly) a toy chameleon. The video below demonstrates how the clear ink becomes DLP projector shines high-intensity light onto the object’s surface as it spins on a turntable. However, it does take a few hours to create a pattern on small objects in the lab. The result is a colorized layer that looks like it was painted on. It was in a sense, but you can change the paint job whenever you want. 

This system is an evolution of ColorMod, a previous MIT experiment that used a 3D printer to create objects that could change color. In that case, the printer had to create each “pixel,” so the resulting patterns weren’t very clear. PhotoChromeleon produces crisp images, and you can quickly “reset” the ink with an ultraviolet light. 

MIT believes PhotoChromeleon technology could eventually make manufacturing more efficient and reduce waste. Imagine that you didn’t need to get two different pairs of shoes in different colors. You could just reset the color and change it to something else whenever you want. Bored with your phone case? Don’t buy a new one, just change the pattern with light. MIT is already working with Ford to advance the PhotoChromeleon project, which also supported the development of ColorMod.

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  • MIT and Amsterdam Partner on Autonomous ‘Roboats’
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  • MIT Creates Lasers That Whisper in Your Ear


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NASA Tests Space Concrete for Future Mars Habitats


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NASA is looking toward a future when humans could visit Mars for an extended period, and Elon Musk is promising to send people there in the next decade. Whenever humans do set foot on Mars, they’re going to need someplace to hang their hat (or spacesuit helmet). Concrete could potentially allow explorers to build structures quickly and easily, assuming it sets correctly without Earth gravity. NASA has conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to assess the strength of concrete mixed in space. 

Scientists believe concrete could be an ideal material for building on other worlds because it’s durable, offers protection from radiation, and it may be possible to make it using materials present on the moon and Mars. Being able to manufacture building materials at your destination (known as in-situ resources) makes missions cheaper and easier to design because you don’t have to launch as much mass from Earth. 

However, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the molecular structure of concrete here on Earth. Concrete is a mixture of sand and gravel with lime or silicate (cement powder). As the cement dissolves in water, it forms crystal complexes that link together the aggregate to make a solid structure. The process of mixing and building with concrete is well established on Earth, but we don’t know how microgravity could affect it. Do we need to modify the ratios? Add additional materials? That’s what the ISS experiment aims to find out. 

ISS concrete above and Earth concrete below.

The experiment, known as Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), is the first time concrete has been mixed outside of Earth’s gravity. Astronauts aboard the ISS mixed tricalcium silicate and water in varying amounts to create a concrete paste. The astronauts added alcohol to some of the packets to stop the hydration process at set intervals as well. A separate experiment used a centrifuge simulated lunar and Martian gravity on the samples as they mixed. 

The experiment confirms that concrete can harden in microgravity, which is a good thing. That means we can build structures with concrete outside of Earth’s gravity. The primary difference is an increase in pores compared with concrete mixed on Earth, and that could reduce the material’s strength. However, lower gravity on the moon or Mars would also put it under less strain. It may be possible to develop different binders that improve the strength of lunar or Martian concrete, and that may even lead to better concrete here on Earth.

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Rock Samples From Impact Crater Reveal Details of Dinosaur Extinction


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About 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs and countless other creatures were going about their business on Earth when a space rock dropped out of the sky and brought about the end of the Cretaceous Period. But what was that fateful day like? We have a better idea today thanks to the International Ocean Discovery Program, which collected a pristine sample from the impact site. 

The asteroid struck near the present-day Yucatan Peninsula, producing the Chixculub crater. Most of the crater sits under the Gulf of Mexico, so that’s where the researchers collected their samples more than 1,600 feet below the seafloor. The rock cores taken from the crater paint a bleak but fascinating picture of that day 65 million years ago. 

The object was probably no more than a few miles wide, which isn’t much compared with a planet. However, its high relative velocity caused a devastating release of energy. At the time of the impact, the region was a shallow sea, probably no more than 100 feet deep. The impact produced a tsunami more than a thousand feet tall, and at the same time gouged a massive crater of melted, deformed rock known as shocked rock. 

Based on the core samples (see below), the team estimates the impactor hit with the force of 10 billion Hiroshima atomic bombs. The blast ignited trees thousands of miles away, and the tsunami reached as far inland as present-day Illinois. The water flowed back into the crater several hours later, bringing with it soil and materials like charred trees picked up from the surrounding land.

The team was perhaps most interested by what wasn’t present in the samples: sulfur-rich rocks. The geological area around the crater has large deposits of sulfur, suggesting that the impact vaporized sulfur-bearing minerals and released the sulfur into the atmosphere. The team estimates that 325 billion metric tons of sulfur ended up in the atmosphere after the impact, which is orders of magnitude higher than what escaped during the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption. That event lowered global temperatures by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The sudden high concentration of sulfur resulted in massive temperature drops across the globe, ensuring almost all dinosaurs perished. The only survivors among the dinosaurs were avian species, which eventually became modern-day birds. More research on the sample could reveal even more details about this tumultuous period in Earth’s history.

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Tesla Pushes Pickup Truck Unveiling to November


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Tesla has made incredible headway when it comes to selling electric sedans and sports cars, and the company is going to launch its first hatchback next year. However, Tesla’s next major vehicle will be a tougher sell. The company was expected to show off its upcoming pickup truck this summer, but now the company is looking at a November reveal at the earliest. 

Tesla launched its first electric vehicles in 2008, but things didn’t accelerate for the company until the Model S hit the roads in 2012. While the Model S is no budget offering, it was the first electric vehicle that offered solid performance and a price tag that consumers could justify in significant numbers. The Model 3 launch in 2017 has Tesla on the verge of mainstream acceptance — it has even run through its government tax credit allotment. 

CEO Elon Musk has long teased the company’s all-electric pickup truck, and Tesla even showed an early concept when it revealed the Tesla semi a while back. The vehicle, seen above, has a definite sci-fi vibe. It looks like the most significant departure from the “traditional” vehicle designs of anything Tesla has yet made. The final design could be entirely different, though.

Musk is an unusual CEO in a number of ways. He talks about financing deals that never happen, goes on podcasts to smoke marijuana, and always, always offers unrealistic timelines. That said, Tesla and SpaceX routinely come through on their promises. They just don’t do it as quickly as Musk’s exuberance would lead us to think. In the case of the Tesla pickup truck, Musk now says November is the new target. 

Sadly, that’s all the information Musk is willing to provide at this time, and that came as a reply on Twitter. Come to think of it, that’s another thing that makes Elon Musk a not-so-typical CEO; he loves to announce product news five replies deep on Twitter. In a previous teaser (yes, on Twitter), Musk said the pickup will have a “cyberpunk” vibe. In an interview last year, he said the design “stops [his] heart.”

Whenever the cardiac effects of the Tesla pickup truck might be, the company is running out of time to make good on its promises. Ford is spinning up plans to launch an electric version of its industry-leading F-150 pickup. That vehicle could hit dealers as soon as 2021. While Tesla will probably start taking reservations for the pickup as soon as it’s announced, it’ll probably be at least a few months before any of them are delivered.

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Apple Says Google Blew iPhone Hacking Report Out of Proportion


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Apple is used to promoting the security of its products in comparison to the competition, but it was on the defensive last week following a report from Google’s Project Zero. According to Google researchers, iOS was the target of a sophisticated attack for two years until Google alerted Apple in early 2019. However, Apple is now seeking to downplay the severity of the attack, claiming Project Zero has blown the whole thing out of proportion. 

The news of Apple’s iPhone vulnerability broke recently with an in-depth report from Project Zero, a group at Google that specializes in uncovering zero-day hacks that threaten internet users. According to the team, a number of websites had deployed hacks that could install malware with root access on the iPhone. The operators of the sites could steal data, monitor phone locations, and even access the user’s on-device password storage. Google said the attacks operated “over a period of at least two years” and covered almost every version of iOS active during that time. 

Apple issued a press release late last week disputing part of Google’s findings. The iPhone maker strenuously objects to Google’s claim that the attacks operated for two years. In fact, Apple says it was closer to two months. Furthermore, Apple says it already knew about the flaws and was conveniently already working on a fix. It’s impossible to verify that claim, but it does sound suspect. Google’s Project Zero researchers are cited in Apple’s official changelog from February as reporting the flaws. 

The timeline of iOS hacks from Project Zero.

Apple also says the attack focused on the Uyghur community, a group of ethnically Turkic Muslims living in western China. Uyghurs have been targeted for persecution and imprisonment by Chinese authorities for years. The government often uses technological means like the iPhone hack to track and investigate the Uyghur population. 

Apple seems to be suggesting that Google wanted to make the flaws look more severe than they were, but Project Zero has traditionally conducted its business in without favoritism. In response to Apple’s criticism, Project Zero has issued a statement standing by its “in-depth research which was written to focus on the technical aspects of these vulnerabilities.”

Google is used to getting publicly chastised for security vulnerabilities — Android is open source, but Apple has the benefit of quietly patching exploits as it finds them in its closed software. Perhaps the iPhone maker is just a little overly sensitive with its new iPhone unveiling this week.

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Life, the Universe, and Math: 42 Proven to be the Sum of 3 Cubes


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The problem of 42 — at least as it relates to whether the number could be considered the sum of three cubes — has finally been solved. The question of whether every number under 100 could be expressed in this fashion has been a long-standing puzzle in the world of mathematics. Now, two mathematicians, Andrew Sutherland of MIT and Andrew Booker of Bristol, have jointly proven that 42 is indeed the sum of three cubes.

For years, mathematicians have worked to demonstrate that x3+y3+z3 = k, where k is defined as the numbers from 1-100. By 2016, researchers had demonstrated that this theory held true in all cases except for two unproven exceptions: 33 and 42. The formal theory, as expressed by Roger Heath-Brown in 1992, is that every k unequal to 4 or 5 modulo 9 has infinitely many representations as the sum of three cubes. By closing this particular gap, we’ve now proven that all numbers below 113 fit this theory.

Earlier this year, Andrew Booker of Bristol was inspired by a Numberphile video to begin working on a solution. We’ve embedded that video below:

Booker came up with a new, more efficient algorithm to search for a solution to the problem for these two values. The solution for 33 took about three weeks to find once the problem was run through a supercomputer at the UK’s Advanced Computing Research Centre. 42 proved a tougher nut to crack, so Booker paired up with Andrew Sutherland, who is an expert in massively parallel computation in addition to being a mathematician. The two enlisted the help of the Charity Engine, a distributed computing project that allows PCs to make money for charities through the donation of computing time.

Over a million hours of computation later, the team had its solution. In the equation x3+y3+z3 = k, let x = -80538738812075974, y = 80435758145817515, and z = 12602123297335631. Plug it all in, and you get (-80538738812075974)3 + 804357581458175153 + 126021232973356313 = 42. And with that, we’ve found solutions for all the values of k up to 100 (technically, up to 113).

“I feel relieved,” Booker said. “In this game, it’s impossible to be sure that you’ll find something. It’s a bit like trying to predict earthquakes, in that we have only rough probabilities to go by. So, we might find what we’re looking for with a few months of searching, or it might be that the solution isn’t found for another century.”

It may not prove that 42 is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, but Douglas Adams clearly made the case for that solution in the mathematical and philosophical textbook, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Efforts to understand the Ultimate Question remain mired in disgruntled physics equations regarding the intrinsic difficulty of building planet-sized supercomputers with molten iron for a central core.

Top image credit: Martinultima/Wikipedia 

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4 Automakers Agree to Cleaner California Air. Now They May Be Sued.


Is this crazy, or what: Four automakers face a Department of Justice investigation and possible lawsuit because they possibly conspired to, uh, build more fuel-efficient cars and help make California’s air cleaner. BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen are the reported targets of a Justice Department investigation into whether they skirted federal competition laws by agreeing with each other to agree to stricter emissions standards in California.

President Trump is mad at California and automakers standing in the way of his administration’s plan to roll back climate change regulations. It’s possible the DOJ is onto something if it can show the automakers agreed among themselves to act in a way that limits competition or product choices without involving the government beforehand. For instance, reducing the number of big SUVs sold there may be good for the air, but it might be seen as collusion.

States’ Rights vs. Executive Power

At a high level, the disagreement is over the rights of states to set a higher standard for higher fuel efficiency and lower air pollution–in this case, a right granted by federal laws (rather the 10th Amendment holding the “powers not delegated to the United States [are] reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”), and on the other hand, the powers of the executive branch.

The law at play here is the federal Clean Air Act, which dates to the 1960s. It has been modified over the years. It says the feds, not individual states, get to set clean air regulations. But there’s a huge loophole: Because California is the state most affected by car-driven air pollution since the end of World War II, the act lets California set more stringent standards. And it allows the other states to follow the same rules California sets (but not its own rules). Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico (model year 2011 and newer), New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington currently use California’s rules. These states represent the entire Pacific West Coast as well as the eastern seaboard from Maine to Washington, DC, and about a third of the US population. For what it’s worth, every California-rules state except Pennsylvania went for Clinton, not Trump, in the 2016 election.

In 2018, President Trump sought to roll back or freeze some fuel economy and air pollution standards. California wants to keep stricter rules. California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who was involved in the July agreement with the four automakers, says California’s emissions goals are achievable and they help US automakers because other countries, particularly China, hew closely to California’s rules. In other words, even if the US were to roll back standards, any automaker that wants a global footprint still has to engineer cars to meet the most stringent standards.

Trump “Enraged.” California Gov: “Political Interference.”

The President used his bully pulpit — Twitter — to excoriate BMW-Ford-Honda-VW. He called them “politically correct Automobile Companies [capitalizations his]” run by “Foolish executives” while the Golden State “will squeeze … [automakers] to a point of business ruin.”

Trump also tweeted that “Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well.” Pollution controls will increase vehicle cost — $3,000 a car according to Trump, or $2,100 a car by the Trump administration’s earlier statements. Factcheck.org said there’s little or no evidence that cars with higher mpg are less safe in accidents.

Lighter cars in accidents with heavier vehicles fare less well, but economy improvements could come from greater efficiencies rather than lightening a vehicle. At the same time, a lighter car does less damage to another lighter-weight car.

Consumer Reports weighed in and said Americans as a group will lose $460 billion in fuel savings “in the coming years if the federal government goes forward with plans to roll back the nation’s fuel economy and emissions standards for new cars and light-duty trucks.”

When The New York Times reported Trump was “enraged” by the audacity of California, his handlers opted to alert others in the media that The Times has correctly captured the President’s mood, according to Politico. California Gov. Gavin Newsom fired back at Trump’s “blatant political interference.”

Administration critics of the BMW-Ford-Honda-VW deal with California say the deal to raise fuel efficiency could mean the end of big SUVs and crossovers. Here, the 2019 Ford Expedition, with three rows of seats, room for eight, and EPA ratings of 18-20 mpg overall. The pact would raise efficiency to almost 50 mpg by 2026, although fuel efficiency mpg is higher than real-world mpg.

How It Came to This

The backstory dates to the early 1950s and the understanding almost 70 years ago of how smog affects California, to California clean air legislation signed by then Gov. Ronald Reagan, federal fuel economy and clean air legislation of the 1960s, and the California-US agreement thanks to the unique status of California and, in particular, the Los Angeles basin that traps smog.

California’s authority to act comes from the Clean Air Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon.

When the Trump administration sought to ease some of the clean air standards, 17 automakers urged the White House to continue talks with California and avoid a legal battle. They warned that failure to reach agreement would lead to “an extended period of litigation and instability.” Of the 17, BMW, Ford, Honda, VW continued to discuss with California their support for strong clean-air/higher-mpg standards. They announced an agreement in late July. That’s what enraged the President.

The agreement has the four automakers agreeing to increase fuel efficiency standards by model year 2026, just six years away, to almost 50 mpg (fleet average). Note that what the government calls miles per gallon is considerably higher than the real-world mpg compliant cars would actually get. Between credits and dispensations that are the work of accountants and legislators, not engineers, a vehicle that gets roughly 35-40 mpg would be, roughly, a 50-mpg car for sake of the rules.

According to a Sept. 6 Wall Street Journal story by Timothy Puko and Ben Foldy with the tagline Politics (not Cars):

The four companies [BMW, Ford, Honda, VW] and the California Air Resources Board announced the deal in July to signal support for keeping one, nationwide emissions standard. Justice Department officials believe the agreement could effectively restrict competition by potentially limiting the types of cars and trucks the auto companies offer to consumers, according to people familiar with the department’s thinking. Such an impact of the deal—potentially cutting production of sport-utility vehicles and crossovers that burn more gasoline—could cross legal lines, the people said. Courts have prohibited such deals even if the motivation was for a public good, the people said.

The automakers would also be hurting themselves because big SUVs and pickups often have profit margins on the order of $10,000 per vehicle. To keep selling them, they’ll need to sell even more compact cars and hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EVs.

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Will Tesla, GM, and Nissan Get a Second Shot at EV Tax Credits?


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A proposed expansion of the $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit has become another polarizing issue, both for fiscal conservatives (“boondoggle … don’t need it”) and liberals and environmental advocates (“an important tool to slow climate change”). It is of greatest interest to Tesla and General Motors, which have already hit the cap. GM is still in the wind-down phase, with a maximum one-quarter credit, or $1,875, for the six months starting next month. Nissan will likely hit the cap in 2-3 years. Ford and Toyota may get there by 2025.

A proposal in front of Congress would expand the tax credit by another 400,000 vehicles per automaker for a total of 600,000. The maximum tax credit would become $7,000, not $7,500, and it would continue t0 apply to purely electric vehicles as well as to plug-in hybrids, but not to hybrids that only go a mile or two on battery power.

Tesla and GM are already over the current cap of 200,000 vehicles eligible for a $7,500 (max) federal tax credit. The site evadoption.com estimates Nissan will get there in 2022 or 2023.

Bill Before Congress

Tax credits for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids have been available since 2010. Tesla, by far the largest seller of EVs in the US, has maxed out is tax credit allocation, and General Motors is winding down its tax credits during a 12-month phaseout period. (See below for more details.)

In April, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Susan Collins (R-ME), along with Congressman Dan Kildee (D-MI), introduced the Driving America Forward Act that would extend the phaseout of the federal EV tax credit.  The legislation, if enacted, could include cars purchased between the phaseouts for Tesla and GM. Or not. Or it could be a partial credit, as people bought with little expectation of getting tax credit money. (But legislation with no provision for interim-period credits would drive EV sales close to zero in the months before passage.)

Proponents say the tax credits help drive buyers toward cleaner electrified vehicles during the period when battery technology is still costly. They note the government subsidizes other forms of energy-reducing transportation such as buses and commuter rail. There are subsidies for rebates for efficient houses, furnaces, appliances, and even light bulbs. (Some LED bulbs after energy company rebates are little more than $1 a bulb.)

While critics blame President Obama, the tax credit was passed in the George W. Bush administration, in the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008.

“Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years,” a Sept. 3 Wall Street Journal charges.

“It’s hard to imagine a more blatant income transfer for the well-to-do,” says a Sept. 3 Wall Street Journal, adding, “Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years.” Critics of EV tax credits include people who say the government shouldn’t be in the business of shaping buying decisions. Others — fewer each year — say climate change/global warming is a hoax. The foes got a boost this week with a Wall Street Journal lead editorial, “Subsidize My Electric Car, Please,” that claimed the tax credits mainly benefit the wealthy and that market forces should decide the fate of EVs.  Separately, Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) sent a letter to GOP senators urging them not to extend the EV tax credit.

Pro-EV credits people say the WSJ editorial made assertions that bear Snopes-style fact-checking, such as that “Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years” and claiming it’s a “blatant income transfer for the well-to-do [of EVs, which have] a starting price of around $36,000.” Facts are slippery things. The feds have underwritten energy research (many kinds) for decades, but the first EV/PHEV credits weren’t until 2010. The average vehicle in 2018 sold for about $38,000 (per Kelly Blue Book), including options. Also, while four in five EVs sell to people with household incomes over $100,000 (in 2016), many were higher-priced Teslas like the Model S and X. Also, the majority of EV transactions are leases where it’s hard to determine income.

A more valuable piece of information would be to know the income of people acquiring mainstream EVs such as the Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen e-Golf, Chevrolet Bolt EV, and Hyundai Kona Electric.

If legislation does pass — and it is not currently being fast-tracked — it’s possible the backers might agree to a reduced or zero tax credit for costly EVs. If somebody buys or leases a Porsche Taycan EV — starting price $152,000 — it’s safe to say they are not in the mainstream of American wage-earners. Legislation also faces uncertain odds of being signed by the President. EV credits flow especially to staunch blue states such as California more than, say, West Virginia (the reddest state of the 2016 election). For tax credit backers, the long game may be waiting to see which way the nation votes in 2020. If the Senate, House, and President all go Democratic, the odds of a tax credit reinstatement are higher. The winning arguments may revolve around climate change issues and supporting new technologies.

For 2019, however, the No. 1 automotive/climate change discussion revolves around how much control California and a dozen other states have in setting their own pollution rules. For decades, California, because of its unique pollution issues especially in the Los Angeles basin, has had the choice of following federal air pollution regulations or setting its own. Thirteen other states have chosen to use California’s emissions rules: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

In July, four automakers cut a deal with California to adopt even tougher tailpipe emission rules. That effectively snubbed President Trump’s goal of a standards rollback.

Rules for the EV Tax Credit

The tax credit for an EV has several rules. They’re not hard to understand once you grasp it’s a credit on taxes you’d otherwise owe. It’s not a check, and it’s not always $7,500. To qualify for a tax credit:

  • It must be an electrified vehicle with a battery of at least 4 kilowatt-hours capacity, which is another way of saying hybrids such as the Toyota Prius do not qualify. Also, it must be capable of being charged by an external electric source, meaning it can’t just be recharged by the combustion engine or brake regeneration. It can’t weigh more than 14,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (the latter not a problem for passenger cars or even the biggest SUVs or pickups).
  • The full credit, $7,500, requires at least a 16 kWh battery. Cars with 4-16 kWh get partial credit. See the EPA fuel economy site for specific-car info.
  • Traditional hybrids already had their own tax-credit program. It’s gone, it’s not likely to come back, and hybrids sometimes cost only $1,000 more than gasoline-only versions. That means there’s little need for a tax credit, since the buyer may well earn back the cost delta over a couple of years.
  • It’s a tax credit, not a tax refund or other check from Uncle Sam. This is good because a tax credit is worth more than money back, on which you’d then typically owe taxes. But you have to owe taxes to get a tax credit and you have to owe taxes in the calendar year you bought the car. If you want a $7,500 credit, you need to owe $7,500 in taxes (over the course of the year, not the extra you might owe April 15.) It is not good if you don’t owe taxes, but then, most Americans would be happy to trade places with you assuming you’ve figured how to not pay taxes and still afford a new car.
  • The tax credit accrues to whoever bought the car. If you leased the car, the credit goes to the leasing company (or whoever holds title) and you should see a $7,500 offset in the implied priced of the car. If you didn’t get it, find someplace else to lease.
  • A dealer demo doesn’t count when you buy it almost-new, but the dealer should be figuring the credit into what it sells the car for. There is one credit per qualifying car, and it applies to the first purchaser.
  • When an automaker reaches 200,000 cumulative sales (counting from January 2010), the tax credit phases out, gradually:
    – The quarter that automaker hits 200,000 doesn’t count, nor does the quarter following. If an automaker hit 200,000 this month (September 2019), the third and four quarters would be full-tax-credit quarters.
    –  The following two quarters, the buyer is eligible for a half-credit, or up to $3,750.
    – The next two quarters, it’s a one-quarter credit, or up to $1,875.
    – Then the credit goes away (unless The Congress acts).

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Tyrannosaurus Rex Had an Air Conditioner Built Into Its Skull: Researchers


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One of the frustrating things about studying long-extinct animals is how thoughtless they were. Dinosaurs — already factually* proven to be the coolest creatures to ever exist — were terribly bad at leaving us good examples of their soft tissues to study. Instead of lining up in neat orderly rows under ideal conditions for long-term fossilization, they just died everywhere. This has made it vastly more difficult to study them appropriately. In most cases, fossilization only preserves bone, though faint markings, scratches, or preserved ‘shadows’ sometimes still show where soft tissue existed.

Because we can’t examine soft tissue directly, paleontologists have to study them indirectly, by examining the bone structures that were preserved for millions of years and comparing them with creatures that still exist today. By tracing the evolutionary lineage of still-extant creatures backwards in time to when it converges with now-extinct creatures, scientists can observe how these features evolved and intuit some aspects of how older structures might have functioned.

Researchers examining the skull of Tyrannosaurus Rex have published a paper arguing that these creatures effectively had air conditioners built into their skulls. Maintaining appropriate body temperature can be a challenge in large animals, and many creatures have adapted various strategies for solving the problem. Elephants have large ears to radiate heat from blood vessels and can flap their ears to create cooling air currents. Some large animals spend a great deal of time in or near water to keep their own body temperatures regulated. Some are active mostly at night when temperatures are lower.

Tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, had holes in their skulls. These holes, known as dorsotemporal fenestrae, have long been thought to function as massive anchors for the creature’s huge jaw muscles. These muscles were thought to entirely fill the cavity when the creatures were alive. According to new research published in The Anatomical Record, however, muscles weren’t the only thing tyrannosaurids packed into the space. These fenestrae may have served a dual function by providing important cooling capability as well. They write:

[H]ere we present numerous lines of evidence which indicate that a sizable portion of the dorsotemporal fenestra in crocodylians, non-avian dinosaurs, and many other fossil archosaur lineages was not wholly muscular but instead likely housed vascular tissues. When skull roof tissues were elaborated in fossil specimens, evidence indicates that blood vessels found in the dorsal temporal fossa were often involved in supporting soft tissue cranial display structures… and possibly vascular physiological devices.

Fenestrae-Temperatures

Image and caption from “The Frontoparietal Fossa and Dorsotemporal Fenestra of Archosaurs and Their Significance for Interpretations of Vascular and Muscular Anatomy in Dinosaurs.“

Several factors led the paleontologists to this conclusion. For one thing, the anatomical location of the holes made them a difficult attachment point for the jaw muscles. For another, the bone in this area of the skull is smooth. Attachment points for muscles typically aren’t. To test their theory, the scientists used a FLIR camera and measured the body temperatures of alligators, paying special attention to the temperatures of the dorsotemporal fenestrae. What they found is that these areas of the body are markedly hotter when the alligator is basking in the sun and cooler when it dozes in the shade.

“One of the major physiological challenges that large animals have is being able to shed heat,” Casey Holliday, the leader of the study, told National Geographic. “If big theropod dinosaurs were warm-blooded … then they too probably had challenges dissipating heat in some instances.”

Other dinosaurs, like ankylosaurs, have been found to have large, complex nasal passages filled with blood vessels as a means of dissipating heat. Tyrannosaurids lacked this adaptation, which means the creatures — which were as much as 40 feet long and 20 feet tall — had to dissipate heat through some other means. Radiating it outwards from the skull would protect the creature’s brain from overheating. National Geographic also notes that some dinosaurs had fenestrae that were close to their neck frills, which are thought to have been used in mating and threat signaling. It’s possible that Tyrannosaurus Rex or its family members may have been able to use its blood vessels for color-changing displays, though this is strictly a theory at this juncture.

* – As measured by eight-year-old me.

Top image credit: Scott Robert Anselmo/Wikimedia Commons

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