Sunday, July 06, 2008

 

Telescope Anxiety

Brothers and sisters, telescope anxiety is abroad in our land. Telescope company anxiety, that is, and us Schmidt Cassegrain fanciers, us bubbas and bubbettes who rely on Meade and Celestron for our scope fixes have got it bad. What’s the problem? Ain’t M&C the world’s biggest amateur telescope sellers? Well, yeah, maybe still, but things ain’t quite what they used to be. Some of us have begun to wonder how long these two fabled and fabulous outfits might be around, at least in a form we recognize.

Who put the fly in the SCT ointment? Well, the decline didn’t start yesterday, but it has been accelerating over the last five years or so. What happened? The main thing is that the profits that can be got out of SCT sales keep shrinking. Meade’s and Celestron’s fork mount scopes, the big sellers in their amateur gear lines, have become ever more technically advanced and complex as the years have rolled on. Their prices, however, in real dollars, have stayed nearly the same. Or, actually dropped. For example, a Meade 8-inch LX90 is $1995.00 in 2008 dollars. This dadgummed thing will do everything except get you a beer out of the fridge and peel the shrimp. And yet…in 1980 dollars its “true” worth is only $792.00 (using the Consumer Price Index as a basis for comparison), which is less than what a fully-up Meade 2080 went for in 1980.

Well, why not up the cost of the SCT to something that gives the makers and dealers a little more profit wiggle room? Fear of the competition keeping their prices low and stealing a march, I reckon. And a belief that consumers expect these prices and will desert in droves if they go up. Let me add rat-cheer that amateur telescope sales, contrary to what has been buzzed around the amateur astronomy rumor mill, are still very important to Meade’s and Celestron’s bottom lines. Department store refractors and riflescopes help, yes, but ETXes and up aren’t just “prestige items,” they are bread and butter.

How do you sell so low in the wake of the The Incredible Shrinking Dollar? How do you maintain a near-40 year old price structure? Only one way, cats ‘n kittens: production costs (including QA) must stay low and get lower. Technology helps—a good PEC routine in the computer is way cheaper than a set of Byers worm gears. But at some point the need to cheapen and a reliance on low-priced but complex technology makes these CATs less reliable than they used to be. That’s exacerbated by the fact that Meade and Celestron, two similar small companies selling very similar products to the same small customer base, have been locked in a features race for years. How do you convince Joe Newamateur to buy Celestron instead of Meade? Tempt him with ever more go-to goodies. Which have to be paid for, and which have been paid for by Celestron and Meade rather than passed on to the consumer.

How much less reliable does all this stuff conspire to make our CATs? That is hard to say. Some folks use an LX200 or a NexStar GPS for years without problems. Other scopes purchased by the less lucky are DOA outa the box, something that has become distressingly common. Bottom line: ever-cheaper scopes with ever more complex features means ever less reliability. Even scarier? Since the companies have less money to spend on QA these days, getting a good CAT is often the luck of the draw.

Until recently, this sitchy-ation has been a bearable one for CAT fanciers. Life has been good. Sure, your LX200 might suffer from “declination runaway” some night, suddenly morphing into Pippi Longstocking on a sugar high, B-U-T… While Meade might make you wait for a repair, they were pretty reliable. Same with Celestron. They might have your beloved scope for weeks or months, but it would eventually wend its way back to you. The trade-off was a fair one, most of us thought: cheap scopes that usually worked, and, when they stopped, you could get them fixed with fair ease. If nothing else, the prospect of having to eventually send the scope back for “treatment” and being without it for a long spell was a sneaky way to self-justify the purchase of a “backup SCT” (don’t tell Miss Dorothy I said that).

There things remained until the new century dawned. As it did, winds of change began to blow across the SCT landscape. Those of us who pay attention to such things sensed all wasn’t well out Calli-for-nye-ay way. That it might not be so easy to keep our complicated and inexpensive fork mount wonders working. It was already clear that once a scope went out of production, even one as popular as the LX200 “Classic,” its days as a repairable item were numbered. But that’s the way it’s always been with Meade and Celestron: support the old stuff for a few years, then tell the customer,“Sorry Charlie, no parts.” That was OK in the pre-go-to dark ages; an old synchro-motor-drive C8 was fairly easy for users to repair. A dead LX200? Nosir buddy. Even if you are an electronics geek, where you gonna get them custom chips? An even greater concern lately is that it's possible neither of these companies may be around much longer to service any of their gear old or new. How did Meade and Celestron get to this place? To being the sick men of the amateur astronomy economy?

As the 1990s wound down, Celestron owners began to feel a little anxious about “their” company, though I’m not sure why it took ‘em so long to notice. Celestron had been struggling somewhat since Halley’s Comet. Not only did they make some wrong decisions in the course of that craziness, they seemed to have a hard time finding a direction afterwards, and made more bad guesses. The innovative Compustars, the first commercial go-to SCTs, were abandoned rather than built-on. Meade was allowed to practically carry off the store with the insanely popular LX200. Celestron did deliver a few innovative products in the mid-90s, including the excellent C9.25 OTA and the remarkable (if underappreciated) Ultima 2000 go-to scope. Unfortunately, the company didn’t do much to promote these products. In the face of Meade’s multi-color multi-page magazine ads, Celestron ran ugly spreads touting LED flashlights and cheap Plössls.

Why did Celestron seem to be sinking? Maybe because they had been owned in absentia by a non-astronomy/optics oriented Swiss company, Diethelm, since Tom Johnson had retired back in 1980. As Diethelm’s enthusiasm for the telescope business waned, Celestron drifted. Then came word that Celestron’s owner was looking for a buyer. That made some of us long-time Celestron users a mite nervous, but most of us looked on this as a possible good thing. The company undeniably needed a fresh start. We just didn’t reckon that fresh start would be spelled T-a-s-c-o.

Today, Tasco is notorious amongst amateur astronomers for importing cheap and junky Department Store Telescopes—the worst of the worst--and has had this reputation for at least twenty years (the company sold some excellent telescopes in the 1960s – 1970s). So y’all can imagine how shocked Celestron’s fanboys were when word leaked out on sci.astro.amateur that Big Orange had been sold to—Tasco! Oh the ignominy! Oh the ribbing Celestron users put up with on the I’net and down to the local club. Us pore saps moaned that Celestron would soon be selling 675X x 60mm refractors, conveniently ignoring the fact that Meade and Celestron both had been selling cheap and junky Chinese imports since the 1980s. The reality was different and better. Tasco didn’t seem to know doodlum-squat about what made Celestron a success, but they brought cash with them. This cash infusion helped the Big C to catch its breath and introduce some much-needed new products.

In their scorn for Tasco, a lot of Celestron’s supporters forget it was under Tasco’s reign that the NexStar was born. Celestron let go of the sickly Ultima 2000 8-inch and the stillborn U2K 11-inch, and brought out a couple of cool-looking SCTs, the NexStar 5 and 8. These single arm fork mount CATs looked like they’d be right at home on the bridge of the U.S.S Enterprise. They made even the beloved LX200 look, not “classic,” but just old. Under Tasco, Celestron seemed to go from strength to strength, introducing a full line of NexStars, including the much and still beloved NexStar 11 GPS. These wonderful telescopes are a subject for a whole blog entry, but, suffice to say, they reinvigorated Celestron.

As you might expect, Meade did respond with a GPS scope of its own, the LX200GPS, before long, but for a while, Celestron appeared unstoppable. Until ever’body was blindsided by the seemingly sudden failure of Tasco in 2002. The importer was gone just like that and its assets were being sold off, including Celestron (the Tasco name lives on in different hands). And, horror of horrors, Meade expressed interest. “Horrors” for Celestron mavens because they purty much figgered Meade would buy their competitor only to obtain patents and technology and would strangle what was left. Before Celestron fans could worry too much about that eventuality, howsomeever, the FTC stepped in with a great, big “no” (just as they had twice before when Meade and Celestron had floated the idea of a merger). Where did that leave Celestron? For a short time, as an employee owned company headed by Rick Hedrick, Joe Lupica, and Alan Hale.

That sounded right good to us, and, for a little while, good it was. But then Celestron was in trouble again. In bankruptcy and looking for an angel. What the--?! Why hadn’t Celestron made it as an independent company? Maybe because it was undercapitalized. Maybe because the company found itself embroiled in a money-sucking round of lawsuits with Meade (who’d decided having a telescope point north and level itself during a go-to alignment was patentable). Whatever the reason, C was on the block again, and Meade was sniffing around again.

Salvation came in the form of Chinese/Taiwanese optical giant, Synta. Celestron had been importing and selling lots of Synta gear since they ended their agreement with Japan’s Vixen back in the early 90s, and Synta seemed a natural. Did they live happily after ever? At this point it seems so. In this economy, in this niche market, never say never, but it looks as if Celestron is stable for now, and that its new masters are running the company in an enlightened fashion. The trade off? Most of Celestron’s legendary SCTs are now made in China.

That’s the orange. How do things stand on the blue side of the railroad tracks? Meade’s problems, which began in the late 1990s, didn’t have much to do with SCTs. Under the leadership of their founder, John Diebel (who’d bought the company back after selling-out briefly), the company was riding high, dominating the worldwide telescope market. The logical move, it seemed, would be to take the company public and onto the More Better Gooder. Which Diebel did. For a while, John’s little kitchen table company was wildly successful in the Wall Street arena—in a modest sorta way. Share prices climbed with the 1990s go-go economy. Till the bubble burst. Why Meade freaks were surprised the effects of that big balloon pop were heard in Irvine as well as Wall Street is beyond me. We were too focused, I guess, on the latest Meade marvels like the LX200GPS, and, later, the RCX400 Ritchey-Chretiens (uhh… “aplantic SCTs”) to notice the way Meade’s stock prices began to decline and then fall as the new century rolled on.

At first I thought the RCX would be just what sickly Meade needed to get back on track. There’s no denying the RCX400 series was a bold and brave move. These SCTs featured just about everything amateurs had been asking for for years: sharper optics, zero image shift focusing via a moving corrector system, motorized collimation, a built-in dew heater, a carbon fiber tube, USB connectivity, and more. All this came at a price nearly twice what Meade charged for equivalent aperture “traditional” design LX200GPS SCTs, a price that might even allow them and their dealers a hint of a profit. The only question in my mind was whether we, amateur astronomers, were willing to pay this more “realistic price” in return for these advances. I managed to get one evening with an RCX400 at a star party, and my verdict was, “Any SCT users who get their hands on this one will want one.” The RCX wasn’t perfect—the focus and drive motors still sounded like weasels with tuberculosis despite the higher price--but it (I tried the 10-inch) was a fantastic telescope. One of the best SCTs I’ve used over the last 35 years.

Unfortunately it’s not clear whether the public would have responded to the RCX as Meade (and I) hoped they would. Things did not go as planned (when do they?). Lotsa boys ‘n girls wanted the RCX at first, sure, but then, when a slew of problems began to be reported, Not So Much. From its introduction, the RCX was plagued with bugs and, most of all, QA problems. Returns of defective and DOA scopes were high, sky high, and the word inevitably got out. This combined with Meade’s obviously declining financial fortunes by 2007 to make most amateurs leery of the new CAT. Even brave sorts like Your Old Uncle, who normally might have been willing to take a chance, shrugging his shoulder with a, “Hell, if she breaks down in a couple o’years, I’ll put her on a GEM.”

Why so leery? Many RCXes didn’t work correctly for two months, much less two years. Worse, even assuming the mount held-on for a couple of years, when it did go south there was no guarantee, it was becoming obvious, Meade would be there for you. Worse still, there was no easy way to adapt the scope to GEM use. Without the complex electronics built into the mount, it could not be focused or collimated. And, gull-dernit, as if that weren’t enough, the scope also garnered a passel of negative publicity due to a lawsuit by Richey – Chrétien makers Star Instruments and RCOS. These folks said Meade was wrong and deceptive to call the RCXes “Ritchey – Chrétiens” when their optical design was really a Schmidt Cassegrain variant. The lawsuit was settled out of court to both parties mutual satisfaction, more or less, but more damage had been done to the scope’s reputation

All them cotton-pickin' chickens came home to Irvine to roost in late 2007. With loans coming due, sales down, and the—I hate to say it—the failure of the RCX, something had to change. Pretty soon, we knew what that would mean. Part of it, anyway. First of all, the new management team now in place in Irvine determined all production would have to be moved offshore. Amateur level telescopes would be made in Mexico, at the factory the company had formerly used to assemble ETXes. The ETX and everything else would be done in China. The Irvine facility would become a warehouse, at least until the company could divest itself of this now too-large facility.

What was the impact on us ATBs (amateur telescope buyers)? Naturally, all amateur scope production was suspended until the move to Mexico was complete, and there things stood for some months. At this time, Meade’s LX200-ACF (née LX200GPS) telescopes, the LX90s, and the ETXes appear to be back in production. Just as I was finishing hunting and pecking this out, I received word from a very authoritative source that Meade is on the verge of shipping new LX400-ACFs (the revived RCX's moniker per the agreement). What--if any--changes have been made to this problematical scope remains to be seen, and whether this is a harbinger of an improvement in Meade’s fortunes I do not know, but it is at least a ray of hope for Meade fanatics.

How about folks who already own Meade scopes? What’s the current prospect for repairs when needed? It’s not clear to me at this time where repair work will be done in the long run or what the company’s repair philosophy will be. Meade is doing repairs at this time, including for its Coronado solar scopes. Some folks report long repair times, some don’t. I have been told scopes returned to Meade for fixing are now going to Mexico to have the work done. I have not verified that, but it makes sense. I just hope Meade is aggressively training the folks there who will put their hands on our prized scopes’ innards.

What are Meade’s continuing prospects? I wish I knew. I certainly do not think Meade telescopes will go away. The name is too well known and marketable. I do wonder what Meade will look like five years from now. At this time its stock is trading for less than a dollar--86 cents a share as I write--and don’t suppose that can go on forever. I would guess Meade might have to wind up finding a buyer (they have admitted they have been “exploring options”). That could be OK. It could even be the saving of the company, as Celestron’s acquisition by Synta appears to have been for it. The unknown would be whether the folks who buy Meade will continue to support the amateur part of the business at at least current levels, or whether it will be a repeat of the Criterion story.

For you younguns, Criterion was a force to be reckoned with in the tiny world of amateur telescopes from the 1950s to the 1980s. Then, a couple of missteps (including the costly introduction of a poor and poorly received SCT, the Dynamax, shown here on Phil Harrington's wonderful antique scope ads site) brought ‘em down. They sold out to optical giant Bausch and Lomb. At first it appeared B&L would continue Criterion as an amateur telescope company. Alas, the Big Dog soon decided amateur scope production was way more trouble than it was worth, and shut the whole thing down. Today, Criterion is just a fond memory. Let’s hope that if Meade gets sold, it’s to somebody interested in telescopes and astronomy. How about GSO?

My advice? To prospective SCT buyers? It’s free and worth every penny. Don’t wed yourself to either company. Celestron is doing well right now, but, as we have seen, tomorrow could be a whole ‘nother story. Meade? Need you ask? If you’re after an SCT, you will obviously have to buy from one of the two, but you can reduce your vulnerability emotionally as well as financially.

Understand and accept that your beautiful new computer-crazy Meade-o-tron on its lovely fork will not be the scope of a lifetime. Eventually, the optical tube assembly will have to go on a German equatorial mount from a third party. A GEM from a company that at least looks stable (if any company making amateur gear really is): Vixen, Losmandy, Takahashi. Until that time comes, take what you can get out of it. If you get some years of service or manage to get the mount repaired when it goes on the fritz, fine. But expect minimal support from either company. They can’t afford to hold your hand. Even if they are still around, they may be unable or unwilling to do much more than warranty service. Look, instead, to your fellow amateurs for help, to people like Doc Clay and Mike Swanson.

Can’t deal with that reality? Never thought I’d say this, but maybe you’d be better off just steering away from M&C altogether. There are plenty of alternatives. You might not get the SCT of your dreams, but you can get a similar scope. Vixen makes catadioptric OTAs. Russian MCTs are being imported in droves. I hear Uncle Roland is preparing to crank-up MCT production again (start saving your pennies, there, Boudreaux). Still want an SCT? There’s always “used.” A time-tested SCT OTA on a brand new techno GEM might be just the thing. In some ways that might be the best idea of all. While most of Meade’s and Celestron’s problems have to do with mount electronics and mechanics, their OTAs have been turning up with deficiencies large and small lately as well. Me? This old hillbilly will stick with ‘em to the end, I reckon. For me, amateur astronomy is Meade and Celestron. Uncle Rod start totin’ Astro - Physics or Takahashi? Not dang likely. But I am going in with my eyes open.

However you slice it, now is the time to at least think about weaning yourself from our two lost loves. I know that is tough to hear, and I hope everything does work out for ‘em. Maybe it will, but, especially in amateur astronomy, remember: nothing is forever. My generation never thought Cave, nor Edmund, nor Optical Craftsmen, nor Criterion, nor Starliner would be mere memories only a couple of decades down the line, but they are and here we are, and we are still havin’ fun nevertheless.

Editorial Note: Hard as it is for me to believe, this here Little Ol' Astro Blog from Possum Swamp is derned-near two-years-old in its present form. In recognition of that, look for something maybe a wee bit lighter in tone next time by means of celebration. As you know, howsomeever, Ol' Unk has gotta speak his mind; that's what this here astro blog is for, and is, I reckon, why you keep a-reading it.

Comments:
As an old guy (61) but a relative new comer to amateur astronomy, only about 3 years, I read with interest your comments about the history of the big two.
My first equipment was a Criterion RV6 I found in the garage of a friend who wasn't even sure how long it had been there. In researching the brand, I found, as you mention, that it was a 'state of the art' brand in the 60's.
With the growing interest in CCD astrophotography a relatively small reftactor with an even smaller one piggy backed for tracking may be the setup of the future.
I purchased a NexStar11GPS used from a guy that decided he would rather have a 16" DOB than the SCT.
There are a lot of alternatives and the golden age of SCT's may be drawing to an end.
 
Rod, another fine, fine piece, chock full of insight, written in the ol' hillbilly style. Keep em comin'.
BTW, I swapped my NexStar11- with the whizbang carbonfiber-tube some years back. You make me wish I'd kept it.
Max
 
My guess is both Meade and Celestron will introduce video-assisted scopes this year or next. They will consist of a 8" or 10" OTA with a built-in color capable Malincam clone where the secondary used to be. Sort of a Hyperstar on steroids. The scope will sell with a small (8"), removable LCD display for the output of the camera, with options for attachment to laptops or other recording devices.

This setup will revolutionize amateur astronomy as we know it. A year from now you will be writing about the demise of the eyepiece industry...
 
Uncle Rod, would agree with your blog and add the fact that the internet is also adding to the failing financial health of M&C via the likes of sites such as eBay and Astromart. In the past, scope’s use to find a dead end life where they were ordered via phone and show up at ones door to be either used to the end of their life or gather dust in the garage. Now with second hand sites such as these, a person that may of purchased a new scope is now buying a second hand scope (peer to peer market verses a many one) that would have just gathered dust and M&C have now lost a sale. In an unscientific survey would say 1/3 or about 33% of the market results in the resale of higher end scopes. I also notice that the haves and haves not of the scope world growing further and further apart (as are many other areas in our “flat” global economy). When I got into the game 10 years ago an LX-200 was -mid- upper class, however today it seems that everyone has an RCO, Tak, or AP! Even Losmandy appears to have fallen a step or two! I just don’t know how to convince my wife that ME is a good investment for our golden years!
 
As an owner of a used LX200GPS mount, I am compelled to purchase a spare used LX200GPS fork mount and base, just for the spare circuit boards.

Many LX200GPS users graduate to GEMS like the Losmandy GM11,when they do they sell off their fork mounts.
There will be LX200 circuit boards for sale used for many many years.
 
I have a Meade LX200 EMC I have accidentally fried the handset by plugging it into the DEC motor outlet. The company doesn't support this old product. Does anyone have any ideas on repair or replacement of the brains of GO TO?
 
Rod,
I have a Nikon D70s and I want to use it with my C11-ASGT. What do you think about using the Celestron Radial Guider to shoot through the scope? I read your piece on DSLR's and am encourged to try this but the Celestron tube mounts dont look as if they would suppord the camera and my 300mm. What do you think?
 
David...that's one way to do it...but, frankly, I HATE searching for guidestars with an OAG, and much prefer a guide scope. OTOH, there's no problem with flexure and flop using an OAG...
 
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