Science News Digest

This is Ray Freeman. And this is Bob Doughty with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about a new major group of insects. We tell about a space rock that came close to Earth. And we tell about food for soldiers that can stay fresh for three years.

Scientists have discovered the first major new group, or order, of insects in almost ninety years. Danish and German researchers reported three kinds of wingless insects unknown to science in the past. Evidence shows that the insects have existed for at least forty-five-million years.

Science magazine reported the discovery this month. Insect expert Joachim Adis (JOE-kim AH-dis) helped write the report. Mr. Adis works at the Max Planck Institute for Limnology in Ploen, Germany. He says the new order is the thirty-first order of insects to be identified.

Examples of the insects came from private collections and from museums in Britain and Germany. Some insects were trapped inside an ancient material called amber. Others were found alive in southwest Africa. The insects measure about two-and-one-half centimeters. They look similar to insects called walking sticks, preying mantises and crickets.

It is not unusual for scientists to discover and identify new kinds of insects. But an order is a large group of creatures. For example, an order called Lepidoptera contains all known moths and butterflies. The last new order of insects was discovered in Nineteen-Fifteen. Some scientists who heard about the discovery of the new order did not believe it.

Most insects cannot be identified until they are adults. By that time, they usually have wings. The new order may not have been recognized earlier because the insects lack wings.

The discovery of the new order resulted from good luck as well as hard work. Biologist Oliver Zompro is a student of Mr. Adis at the Max Planck Institute. Mr. Zompro was examining several insects sent to the institute for identification. They came from museums and private collectors. The insects were in amber that was at least forty-five-million years old. Mr. Zompro found that the insects could not be identified as part of any known order.

Officials at the British Museum of Natural History then showed Mr. Zompro another insect. This insect came from Tanzania in Nineteen-Fifty. It had been in the museum for sixteen years. Its collectors had sent it there to be identified. However, the museum experts could not do so. Mr. Zompro recognized it as similar to the mysterious insects he had seen before.

He also examined another example of the order in the Berlin Museum of Natural History. It had been found in Namibia at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Mr. Zompro believed the mysterious insects might still be alive on Earth. He and a research team sent computer e-mail messages to museums around the world for help. They wanted to know if anybody had seen similar creatures.

The only response came from Namibia. So, the researchers went to the southwest African nation to look for the insects. Other experts from England, South Africa, the United States and Namibia joined the team. They found the insects on Brandberg Mountain in western Namibia.

Collectors reportedly are already paying high prices for the rare insects. Officials in Namibia have increased security to prevent people from seizing the insects and selling them. Scientists now are looking for more of the newly identified insects in Brazil.

A huge space rock came near Earth last month. Scientists say it measured between forty and eighty meters wide. Scientists think it was about the size of a large passenger plane. The space rock passed within about four-hundred-eighty-thousand kilometers of our planet. It was only a little further away from us than the Moon.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered the asteroid four days after it passed Earth and had moved off into space. They say it could have done severe damage if it had hit a major city. They say few asteroids that large have ever been known to pass so close to Earth.

Scientists said no one saw the space rock for two reasons. They said it came toward Earth from the direction of the Sun. This made it extremely difficult to see because of the brightness of the Sun. And it was not big enough to see.

Gareth Williams works with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is also an assistant director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center. Part of his job is finding space rocks that could be a danger to Earth.

He says no amount of searching would have found the asteroid because of its size and where it came from. Mr. Williams says there have probably been many similar space rocks that have flown close to our planet and then traveled back into deep space.

Researchers say the asteroid's orbit should not present a danger to Earth in the next century. However, they are worried about similar space rocks that could be in orbits that bring them close to Earth.

A smaller space rock did hit an area of Siberia in Russia in Nineteen-Oh-Eight. It destroyed trees for hundreds of square kilometers. A similar asteroid made of iron crashed into the ground in the area that is now the American state of Arizona fifty-thousand years ago. It created a hole in the earth that was one-thousand-two-hundred meters wide.

Benny Peiser is an expert on space rocks that have hit the Earth in the past. He works at the Liverpool John Moores University in Britain. He says that satellites will soon be used to search space for asteroids that may present a danger to Earth. He says scientists are studying space rocks in an effort to develop a plan for moving the big ones away from Earth.

The United States military has developed a new product to feed soldiers in battle. The food contains meat and bread and is eaten like a sandwich. It can stay fresh for up to three years.

Scientists at the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, developed the sandwiches. They do not have to be kept cool while being stored. And they do not have to be heated before eating.

For years, the United States military has wanted to add to its collection of food for soldiers. Such food is commonly called "Meal, Ready-to-Eat," or M-R-E. M-R-E foods are designed for soldiers on the move.

Until now, soldiers had to make sandwiches from bread and other foods stored in separate containers.

The new sandwiches are similar in size and appearance to some products already sold in American food stores. Yet they can survive extreme temperatures and being dropped from an airplane. The sandwiches will stay fresh for up to three years at twenty-six degrees Celsius. At thirty-eight degrees, they will keep up to six months.

Researchers developed the sandwiches using a method called intermediate moisture technology. This technology protects foods by controlling water activity and levels of acid. Scientists use substances called humectants to reduce the amount of water in the product. This limits the growth of bacteria. The scientists also add naturally acidic substances to protect the product. The sandwiches are covered tightly in heavy plastic to protect them against water and oxygen.

Recently, the military approved two kinds of sandwiches for use in the M-R-E program. One contains barbecue chicken. The other has pepperoni, a pork product often added to pizza.

Officials report that soldiers who tested the sandwiches said their taste was acceptable. The sandwiches also meet safety requirements set by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

American military scientists are now planning to extend the list of M-R-E foods to include bagels, burritos and even small pizzas. Battlefield meals may never be the same again.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Jerilyn Watson, Paul Thompson and George Grow. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. This is Ray Freeman. And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - April 30, 2002: Digest
TEXT = http://www.voanews.com/specialenglish/archive/2002-04/a-2002-04-29-2-1.cfm?renderforprint=1