Saturday, August 05, 2006

 

Coronado Gone? Solar Observers Tell Uncle Rod: "We Told You So"

If you have any interest in observing ol' Sol, especially or mainly at hydrogen alpha wavelengths, you've heard of Coronado Instruments. Their Ha filters began making a big impact on amateur Solar observing several years ago. In fact, many amateurs and small colleges couldn't even dream of setting up a scope for hydrogen alpha work Before Coronado. "B.C.," Ha filters were expensive, difficult to use, and usually didn't deliver the kind of results amateurs dreamed of (images like those we saw from scanner-equipped pro scopes).

But then along came a little amateur astronomer-run company from Tuscon, Arizona, Coronado Instruments, a tiny outfit that began to sell some truly amazing gear. Imagine: Ha filters that didn't need to be plugged into a mains supply and fiddled with endlessly. Imagine razor sharp and detailed images of prominence and disk detail. Imagine being able to view in hydrogen alpha and not having to sell your firstborn to pay for it.

Coronado's initial output was amazing enough, but they did not stop there, oh, no. The Coronado filters and some dedicated Solar scopes, including 60 and 70mm refractors, impressed even the most jaded Sun-watchers, sure, but it was not until they introduced their "PST," Personal Solar Telescope, that Coronado really set daytime amateur astronomy on its ear.

The PST was in every sense a breakthrough. It was/is a 40mm refractor with a built in hydrogen alpha filter and performance similar to that of Coronado's earlier and larger scopes. The PST was advertised as being able to deliver stunning views of both prominences and disk detail, just like its big sisters.

There was one huge difference between the PST and Coronado's other Solar telescopes, however: price. Yeah, the approximately $3500.00 tab for the Coronado 60mm was OK compared to what we were used to paying to observe Mr. Sun in the deep red end of the spectrum. OK. But the $500.00 that Coronado began quoting as the price for a PST for literally astounded us. How could they possibly do it?

Amateur astronomer skepticism quickly turned to enthusiasm, however, when we got our first looks at the Sun through the little 40mm aperture thing. While disk detail may not have been as good as what a Coronado 60 or 70 could show, it was still very good indeed. And the PST's views of prominences, what many new observers are most interested in, were, frankly, just as good as what the more expensive models could do. Certainly much better than what many of the horrendously expensive hydrogen alpha filters we used to slap on our Orange Tube C8s produced back in the bad old days.

Not to paint too much of a Jack Armstrong All American Boy picture. If I recall correctly, Coronado started life on the Isle of Man, and decamped for the greener pastures of Arizona once success began to come, leaving their original employees in the lurch.

ANYWAY, Things shortly began to look incredibly good for Coronado Instruments, with us members of the astronomy chattering classes predicting incredible success for them--at least in a small amateur astronomy sort of a way. Then, wouldn't you know it, dark clouds began to gather.

First and shockingly, Coronado was sold to Meade Instruments. I've always liked Meade equipment, but there's no use denying that many amateurs look on the California SCT maker as the Deathstar of the equipment biz. We were all just real surprised that Coronado would throw in the towel when it looked like the only way for them to go was up. This move became a little less surprising when we learned that Coronado's founder, David Lunt, was seriously ill.

Following David's death in January 2005, Coronado fans began to wonder what would happen. Would Meade close the company's little plant? Move production to China? Me? I told everybody who'd listen that I doubted that would happen. Coronado had become very well respected among amateur astronomers, and respect is something that's hard to beg, borrow, or buy. Especially, it seems, for Meade these days. Wasn't the respect and admiration the Coronado name had engendered in its short life worth a lot to the Irvine bunch?

When it became clear (or seemed to) that Coronado would stay in Tucson where it could continue to take advantage of its (second set of) dedicated employees and also the resources of the Tucson optical community, everybody relaxed a little. Meade said they wouldn't move the company, and that sounded believable now. Like Uncle Rod said, "Why kill the goose that laid the golden Solar egg?" Surely Meade understood that. They seemed to. At least, Coronado stayed where it was and the quality of the filters was as good as ever.

Until...

Until Meade began, apparently, running into escalating financial difficulties. What that meant for their Coronado "division" became clear in a July 27, 2006 news release. In addition to some mumbling about cutbacks and layoffs (excuse me,"RIGHTSIZING"), the following paragraph was included:

"The Company also reported the planned closure and consolidation of its Coronado(R) Instruments manufacturing and distribution facility in Tucson, Arizona, which will result in an additional estimated decrease of $800,000 in annualized operating costs. This consolidation will eliminate 16 employees by August 31, 2006. All Coronado operations are being consolidated into the Company's Irvine facility, with no associated increase in SG&A expense expected for that facility. "

What more can I say at this point? I just feel a little sad. I do hope Meade will continue to produce excellent filters under the Coronado name, filters David Lunt would be proud of. Do I believe Meade will? I'd like to say "yes," but after being proven wrong once in a big way, I'm gonna wipe the egg off my face and wait and see what goes on in Irvine (or Taiwan).

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