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Archive for April, 2012

Happy Belated Birthday to Hubble

On April 24th, 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. Despite some ‘issues’ with the mirror shape (it was a fraction of a wavelength out of shape – the size of 1/50  the thickness of a piece of paper)the problems were soon sorted out and the Hubble started to give us some of the best images of deep stellar objects that we could ever expect to see.


Yesterday was Hubble’s 22nd Birthday:

Sadly, Hubble does not have many more birthdays. It is expected to come to an end of useful life in 2013 or 2014, and with the Shuttle Program new ended it will not be able to get any more maintenance. It is possible it useful life may continue beyond the expected end date much like some of the Martian Rovers continued past their short-expected lifespan, but that remains to be seen.

The Hubble does have a replacement in the James Webb Space Telescope.



Oh hey! a new rocket launch set!

this year we added Estes Models Rocket Kits to our product line, and the launch sets have actually done very well! So well in fact that we even decided to add a cool launch set to our product line. The one we chose is the Shuttle Xpress Model Rocket Launch Set:

This launch set includes the launch pad, engine igniter and the rocket & parachutes. The only thing not included are rocket engines and batteries for the launcher.

What makes this model fun is that it caries two flying model ‘shuttles’ on the rocket.


When the rocket at the shuttles reach their maximum height they detach and proceed to glide back down to Earth. The main rocket deploys its parachute and floats gently back to Earth.  The gliders can float up to 200 feet.  The kit requires minimal assembly and no gluing or painting is needed!


Kaboom! Hog Wild Cannon Ball Shooter!

We’ve had a fun new toy added from Hog Wild, who we’ve had in the past with their Dino Popper! Now they have added another fun foam ball shooting toy: The Cannon Ball Shooter!

Its a simple concept: You stuff a foam ball (you get 6) into the cannon and slam down on the launch pad as hard as you can! The air shoots the ball up to 30 feet. Reload and fire at will! You can even change the angle of the cannon barrel to improve your aim. The cannon has a suction cup on the bottom so that it will stay put on slick surfaces.

Here’s a little video we made of the cannon in action:


New Sterling Engines

The Stirling Engine is an External Combustion Engine (the heat source is outside the engine) and can use any available source of adequate heat or cold. It is a classic illustration of converting heat energy into mechanical work. We’ve already displayed our awesome Low-Temperature Sterling Engine, which can run off the power of a hot cup of coffee, but we have also now added more impressive Sterling Engines that are great for classroom demonstrations, engineering concepts, or just as desktop toys!

First up is the Basic Sterling Engine:

This unit is powered by a built-in alcohol lamp and has dual pistons like most standard Sterling engines.

However, some folks may want to do something with the kinetic energy produced by a Sterling Engine, so a couple of models show this well. First is a straight mechanical energy conversion that has the Sterling Engine running a car.

Another example converts the mechanical energy produced by the Sterling Engine into electricity by using a small dynamo that powers an LED Light:

All of these models operate off the standard Sterling Engine design. However, also available with this new line of Sterling Engines is a series of variation models. For example we also have the Sterling Engine Type B which operates using a single piston rather than the dual pistons:

Sterling Engine Type B

Also in the line is a Mason Cycle Engine, which is technically not a Sterling Engine – except that it really is. It operates more along the lines of a two-stroke engine but using temperature differences rather than gasoline.

Finally the last of these variants is the Thermoacoustic Sterling Engine. This unit actually produces standing soundwaves that power the piston. Its actually pretty awesome when you think about it!

All of these Sterling Engines are tested before being shipped. They are excellent gifts or demonstration items.  The bases are wood and all the parts machined metal. These are quality crafted instruments and great for engineers or the technologically curious!


Astronomy Hints #15: Filter! Filter!

One of the more wide-range things to use in astronomy are filters. There are a large number of them and their purpose varies greatly. They can reduce light, help with light pollution, bing out details, or help with astrophotography. Most filters thread on easily to telescope’s eyepieces and can change your viewing experience.

But when choosing filters one must remember this: They are filters, they are designed to remove something, even if it is unwanted. Some folks get the idea, especially with light-pollution filters, that filters make objects being viewed much brighter. But that is not the case. Think of it this way: if you have a kitchen odds are ou might have a water filter in your faucet or some kind of pitcher. When you use this filter you do not make more water by using it, you are merely removing the stuff in the water you do not want.  Water filters are actually pretty good because if you put 1 liter of water over a water filter odds are you will end up with very close to 1 liter of clean water. But you won’t end up with 1.1 liters. Sounds obvious, but some folks get the idea that that is what astronomy filters can do. But it is not so. In fact using an astronomy filter on the light from the stars means you are going to lose some of the good light along with the stuff you do not want. If we go back to out water filter you can think of our 1 liter of unfiltered water becoming .9 or even .8 of a liter.

But let us discuss the various types of filters:

Moon Filters

Moon filters are simple neutral density filters (which means they evenly cut down on light across the visible spectrum) that thread onto your eyepiece. They are used because the Moon is actually very, very bright and viewing it in even small telescopes at it can hurt your eyes after a short time (not permanently, mind you). A Moon Filter can make viewing more comfortable. Typically filters allow in 25% of the light, or 12% (for larger telescopes)  or in a variable model you adjust yourself .

Solar Filters

Solar filters are the only filters that do not thread onto the eyepiece. The go over front of the telescope. If you find a ‘solar filter’ that is meant to thread onto an eyepiece, destroy it immediately. Those are very dangerous as they can crack letting through sunlight that can damage your eyes. Don’t use them, Don’t keep them – someone else might be tempted. Destroy them.

Most solar filters are simple screens of Mylar that cuts down on 99.999% of the light so that you can safely view the sun. Mostly what you will see is a white disc with some sunspots.  It makes for some nice viewing during the high points of the sunspot cycles, during the lows the sun can seem a bit featureless, however.

Another type of Solar Filter is the Hydrogen-Alpha Filter. These allow you to view reddish colored prominences and solar flares. They are very expensive, however (in the thousands of dollars) and they need a certain amount of ‘tweaking’. But they can give very impressive views of solar activity.

Color Filters

Color Filters are used on the planets or the Moon – they cut off too much light to use on deep sky objects. Color filters are used to try and bring out more details on the planets that might get washed out in regular filtering. Details brought out might include the bands on Jupiter, polar caps on Mars, more lunar crater detail, and so on. Color filters can be hit-or-miss among astronomers. Some think they are great, others find them less useful. The field seems rather subjective but if you plan on viewing the Moon & Planets more than anything else you might wish to invest in a set.

Light Pollution Filters

Light Pollution Filters are designed to help astronomers who live in light-polluted suburbs or cities. They are not a substitute for dark skies, but they can certainly help out when options are limited. Light pollution filters help by cutting down on frequencies of light that streetlights, parking lot lights, and other human-made light sources produce, while letting through most of the light that stars, nebulea, and other deep sky objects emit.

This set of quickie photos can give you and idea of the effect of the filters. Here is a shot of a city streetlamp that is on during the daytime:

Street Lamp, through a phone camera, daytime, unfiltered.

And then with an Orion Ultrablock Filer held over the lens:

Same streetlight, with light pollution filter held over the camera lens. Note the difference.

You will notice that the filter helps, but does not completely eliminate the streetlight light, and it does have some effect on the natural background light as well. This is why they are helpful but not a complete solution to dark skies.

Light Pollution filters also are of little use on the Moon (which is bright enough to not be bothered by light pollution) or the major planets (which are similarly unaffected by light pollution). They are of limited effect on the outer planets as those planets emit light over much of the spectrum and get filtered as much as the background light.Some light pollution filters may be referred to as Nebula filters, which are very focused and are even designed to cut down on some of the light from nearby stars.

Astrophotography Filters

There are a huge number of these and their uses could fill a book – a book about astrophotography that is. These filters do things like cut off the IR portion of the spectrum (which messes up CCD chips in digital cameras) or filters out only the all but the Red or Green or Blue part of the spectrum for monochromatic cameras. The number of these filters has expanded vastly in the past few years. Covering these would take a very large entry so we will leave them for now as it is beyond the scope of Astronomy Hints.

Refractor Violet Filters

These filters are for one type of telescope – refractors. The large lenses in these telescope sometimes act as prisms and break up the light into component colors. This is especially noticeable on bright objects like Jupiter or the star Sirius. The effect is that the object being viewed will have a violet colored halo that is affectionately known as ‘purple haze’. Violet-Minus filters cut out this portion of the spectrum without affecting overall viewing much.  If you have a larger refractor that sometimes shows the ourple haze you might consider getting one of these filters.


A nice article about our store

We have had a nice article written about our store. You can view it here:



When you deal with instruments that need to completely sterilized, either for medical use, clean room use, or just need to be clean for work, simply washing the instruments with soap & water simply won’t do. For real sterilization what you will need is an Autoclave.

An Autoclave sterilizes by using high-pressure steam to blast the instruments & tools for about 15-20 minutes. The temperature is usually about 121 degrees C. To put that in perspective consider that a kitchen dishwasher rarely goes above 75 degrees C, and usually operates at much lower temperatures.  This high temperature steam completely ensures that even the most stubborn and tough bacterias, virii, fungi are dead or dormant.

At Spectrum Scientifics we sell several models of Autoclave. The first is BenchMark’s Mini research Autoclave the BioClave:

This unit is small enough to fit on a lab bench (the overall size is 20″ L x 13.5″ W x 12.9″ H). yet large enough to have a chamber that is 6.7″ x 12.5″. You can see the chamber is able to hold a decent number of tools and other items:

The controls are automatic and easy to use. A second setting with this model allows the temperature toe run at 134 degrees C for tough jobs or stubborn items. The unit also features safety features such as a locking door that remains locked until pressure is equal – you wouldn’t want a face full of hot steam!

But maybe you need something bigger? For that BenchMark makes (and we sell it!) the 16L BioClave research autoclave. This autoclave has a larger 9″ x 13.75″ chamber that you can stand larger glassware up in if needed.

Same automatic controls with choice of temperature settings, as well as the larger chamber:

The Bioclave 16 can be attached to an optional thermal external printer that can provide a record of sterilization parameters.

Both models come with a 1 year warranty. The standard model operates on a 115V US current, but models that operate on 230V (British or European plug) are also available.


Lazy Day Video Time!

OK, we’ve had a lot to go over today so there wasn’t really much time for a proper blog post. Instead we will be lazy and post a video.

What of? Well what happens when you take a SmartPhone and then put a simple Kaleidoscope over the lens? Well, see for yourself:

New Toy: The Energy Stick!

Now, we’ve had a toy like this before. In fact the UFO Ball does a lot of what this new Energy Stick does – work at making a human circuit! The difference is that the Energy Stick does it a lot more dramatically.

The idea is simple. You have an object – in this case a stick, and it has two contact points. When you touch one contact point nothing happens because you have not yet completed the circuit. But touch both of the contact points and the electricity can flow! The electricity in this case is a very low-voltage, high-frequency current that travels over human skin and not through it – so there is no danger. Completing the circuit takes place with a light and sounds show – the current being enough to light up a few LEDS and make a sound disc play.

Now the cool part is that you don’t have to do it on your own! If you touch one of the contact points and have a friend touch the other, and the touch each others other hand -the circuit is completed and the lights light up and the sound plays! You can even add more people by putting them between you and grabbing the hands that you aren’t using to touch the contact points! The circuit will still be complete and the light and sound show kicks in!

The Energy Stick is an excellent way to teach electrical circuits and how they stop working when the circuit is broken. The hands-on nature of this toy makes it an experience for students to remember. It should be part of any science  curriculum that involves current electricity.


Worm Watchers! Kits for classrooms of all ages

One aspect of life science education that should be covered several times throughout the K-12 syllabus is that of composting – not just for gardening purposes, mind you, but to show how nature is very good at recycling dead material into fresh, useful material.

The problem is, composting is a dirty processes that, let’s face it, smells. Some schools are lucky enough to have large campuses where a section can be used to experiment with composting – but most schools do not. Especially schools in tight urban environments. Even in schools with rural areas composting outdoors might not be the best choice for an educator. Many a teacher has found their composting system to become a nest for opossums,rats, or other unwanted creatures. There’s also the issue that often you don’t see what is happening in the composter – just the starting material and results!

So what to do? Well one excellent solution is to use the Worm Watchers Classroom kits:

Middle/High School Wormwatcher Kit

Middle/High School Wormwatcher Kit