LOS ANGELES — The world’s two largest telescope makers are locked in a battle that amateur astronomers and federal regulators alike fear could monopolize the market for a popular type of stargazing equipment.
Meade Instruments Corp. of Irvine has filed three lawsuits against rival Celestron International Inc., alleging patent infringement related to computerized telescope technology.
Celestron, based in Torrance, believes the suits could bankrupt the company as it seeks to buy back its independence from parent Tasco Worldwide Inc., which announced in May it was liquidating its assets.
The latest of the suits comes on the heels of Meade’s attempt to buy Tasco and Celestron. Publicly held Meade is the world’s largest telescope manufacturer, with more than $100 million in sales last year. No. 2 Celestron had $24 million in sales.
The Federal Trade Commission said May 29 it would block the Celestron purchase since it would create a monopoly in the market for Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, a powerful but compact telescope popular with amateur astronomers.
The two Southern California companies are the only volume manufacturers of the telescopes, which cost between $1,000 and $2,500.
“It would be the same thing if General Motors said it would buy Ford, or vice versa,” said Philip Harrington, author of “Star Ware,” a consumer guide to telescopes.
The FTC blocked a proposed joint venture between the companies in 1991 on grounds it would stifle competition.
Officials at Celestron fear Meade is using the suits to bankrupt the company as its senior management team, with the help of outside investors, raises the cash to buy it from Tasco’s creditors.
“They’re basically trying to wait it out through legal means to destroy us financially,” said Marty Traxler, Celestron’s director of marketing.
Mark Peterson, Meade’s senior vice president and general counsel, denied that claim.
“There is absolutely no truth at all to that. We have ... spent millions of dollars and years of R and D efforts to develop this technology and we feel it is our obligation to our shareholders to protect our intellectual property portfolio,” Peterson said of the suits.
Tasco announced last month it was liquidating its assets, four years after the Miramar, Fla.-based company bought Celestron. Meade said it has dropped its bid for Celestron, but still seeks to buy Tasco.
Amateur astronomers had feared Tasco, known for department store-quality telescopes, would cheapen the higher-quality Celestron brand.