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Telescope maker Meade files for bankruptcy

Meade and its Chinese parent company, Ningbo Sunny, recently lost an antitrust lawsuit with a competitor.
RELATED TOPICS: TELESCOPES
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Astronomy: William Zuback
Iconic telescope maker Meade Instruments filed for bankruptcy protection last month after a years-long legal battle with a competitor.

On Nov. 26, a jury for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found the company liable in an antitrust suit that Orion Telescopes & Binoculars filed against Meade and its parent company, Chinese-owned Ningbo Sunny Electronic Co. The verdict was initially reported by legal news site Law360.

Orion is a California-based retailer that sells telescopes and related accessories. Its website sells telescopes under its own brand name, as well as products from Meade and other brands. Meade is one of the largest distributors and manufacturers of telescopes for amateur astronomers. (Both companies are Astronomy magazine advertisers.)

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Big telescope, small package

Meade is a household name in the astronomy community. The company has been making and selling affordable telescopes and accessories since the 1970s and is known for including convenient GPS and error-correcting features in its telescope mounts.

"They brought numerous likable products and innovations to the market," said Bart Fried, an amateur astronomer and vice president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

Meade says it's not going anywhere. But if Meade were to disappear, customers could lose support for their existing Meade products, Fried said.

It could also be a big blow to the availability and selection of Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes on the market. Meade and fellow telescope manufacturer Celestron are the two main producers of this type of telescope.

Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes squeeze a long focal length — good for high-power observing — into a compact package. It’s a popular type of telescope among amateur observers, Fried said.

“You basically end up with a big telescope in a small package,” Fried said.

Meade up for sale?

In a legal complaint filed back in 2016, Orion accused Meade’s parent company of working with another major Chinese telescope manufacturer to fix prices and monopolize the American telescope market. The other company settled with Orion before the suit was filed and is not named in the complaint.

After the jury’s verdict, a U.S. District Court judge on Dec. 5 ruled that Meade and Ningbo Sunny must pay damages to Orion. According to the jury’s verdict — linked to from Orion’s website — Meade owes the retailer at least $16.8 million. However, the amount owed could triple because of the Sherman Antitrust Act, bringing the total closer to $50 million. 

The text of Meade Instruments’ bankruptcy filing claims debts between $10 million and $50 million. And according to reporting by Bloomberg News, Meade now intends to sell itself. When reached by email, the company did not confirm the report.

Meade is still selling products on its site as usual. In posts on Facebook, Meade Instruments stated, “We will continue to support our products, our customers, and our network of dealers throughout this process. Our customers will remain our highest priority. We thank you for your valued support and look forward to continuing the Meade name.”

Telescope industry infighting

The telescope industry is no stranger to such legal fights.

In 2002, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission blocked Meade from acquiring Celestron, saying the merger would potentially lead to a monopoly on Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes.

And, according to reporting from Sky & Telescope, Meade and Celestron lobbed a series of lawsuits at one another with accusations of patent infringement about GoTo telescope technology starting in 2001. They mutually resolved the dispute in 2006. That same year, Star Instruments and RC Optical Systems (now Deep Sky Instruments) sued Meade and some of its dealers on claims of false advertising. Meade settled out of court in 2008.

Then, in 2013, Chinese manufacturing company Ningbo Sunny bought Meade Instruments, outbidding Orion and other competitors. That purchase was also part of Orion's complaint, with the company claiming Ningbo Sunny worked with another major telescope manufacturer to purchase Meade. Orion also said it was charged higher prices than another competitor was charged. The Nov. 26 jury verdict for Orion’s antitrust case against Ningbo Sunny found that the company “engaged in anticompetitive conduct” and “had a specific intent to achieve monopoly power in the telescope manufacturing market.”

“Our manufacturers based in China have been conspiring for years to put us out of business so that their own brands can dominate the market and raise prices,” Orion president Peter Moreo said in a press release in April when a federal court ruled that the case could proceed to trial.

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