August 28, 2003



John Chumack has spent the last two years building an observatory in John Bryan State Park. This summer, Chumack has been capturing images of Mars, which is now closer to Earth than it has been in 60,000 years.



John Chumack is building observatory at John Bryan State Park—
A room with a view that’s out of this world

Because John Bryan State Park is in the middle of a forest, it may not seem like the best place to view the stars. But due to a little known secret, it is actually an excellent spot on a clear night from which to see more stars than anyone has ever seen with the naked eye.

Every other Saturday night, when the cicadas stop singing and the last of the sunlight has receded from the horizon, the Miami Valley Astronomical Society sets up 20 to 30 telescopes and invites the park’s campers to its summer star gaze to discover outer space.

One of the society’s members has been spending much more time there than usual this summer. Just down the road from the day lodge and behind the gates of the park’s observatory, Dayton resident John Chumack is building his own smaller observatory, replete with three computerized telescopes and a rotating dome that allows him to see the whole sky one piece at a time.

This is a particularly good time to watch the sky because this week Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been in 60,000 years. Closer means larger and more detailed, and Chumack has been imaging Mars all summer, seeing volcanoes and watching the ice cap appear as a dark area around the planet’s southern pole.

It is clear from his 15 telescopes and his ICSTARS license plates that Chumack loves the stars. But he does more than just look at them. For 15 years he has been photographing the sky above Yellow Springs by attaching a camera to his telescopes and selling what he calls “pretty pictures” to major publications such as Time magazine and National Geographic. He has amassed 3,500 images over that period, which he claims is the largest astrophoto archive of any amateur astronomer in the world. He sells his prints in Yellow Springs at the Village Artisans Cooperative as well as at art shows during the summer.

Chumack also does more than just take pretty pictures. He has his own official minor planet observatory, code MPC 838, from which he images variable stars and many of the 519 potentially hazardous asteroids for the country’s centralized Minor Planet Center, a clearinghouse for asteroid research and tracking. Just last year astronomers knew of 300 asteroids whose orbits posed a potential threat to the earth, Chumack said, and more are being found every day.

But don’t think that’s the end of the story. Chumack does all of his astronomy work during his off time, when he isn’t either at work as a composite research engineer at the University of Dayton or at home playing computer games with his 4-year-old daughter Kayla or out coaching his older son’s little league team.

“I’m driven, I get an average of five hours of sleep a night, and I have an extreme passion for astronomy and everything to do with it,” Chumack said earlier this month, as he paused to consider how to fit a 200-pound compact reflector telescope through his observatory’s door.

His unwavering sense of determination has always allowed him to persevere in the face of a challenge. “Even if I don’t know how to do it, just give me a book and then I’ll just try to do it,” he said.

It was an astronomy magazine with those pretty pictures that piqued Chumack’s interest in 1988 to photograph the stars. He was working at General Motors and wanted to show his co-workers that he could make similar pictures. So he bought a book and built a small telescope, and he hasn’t rested since.

For those who don’t know how to read the sky, Chumack suggests starting with the basics: Orion, the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers and the 12 Zodiac constellations along the sun’s path.

“You gotta learn the constellations and brighter stars because without that you can’t know where anything is,” he said.

Chumack has had a lot of time to memorize the sky. Taking pictures of the stars sometimes requires hours of exposure to capture all the light, and rotating the lens at the same rate the earth is moving can only be done while looking through a computer assisted telescope, he said. In the past he has stood outside at 4 a.m. in the frosty winter air for up to nine hours to get the image he wants.

The sky must be clear. The moon must be new. And the camera must be steady.

But it is a challenge, and as always, Chumack is undeterred.

This summer he hopes to complete his observatory, which he has been working on for two years. Though light pollution from town has increased and sometimes disrupts his photos, he can still do minor planet and variable star research. All three telescopes at John Bryan State Park will be hooked up to a computer that he can monitor from his home in Dayton, along with the other telescopes set up in his observatory in his backyard.

Chumack does set limits for himself and reserves time away from his projects. He and his family spent a week at the Grand Canyon this summer, an excellent place for astrophotography, from which he didn’t take a single shot of the stars.

But somewhere in the back of his mind, the thought of his future ambitions must have lingered as he looked up in the night sky and saw the 12th Zodiac, the constellation Pisces.

“The 13th they’re going to name after me,” he said.

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The Miami Valley Astronomical Society will hold a star gaze Saturday night, Aug. 30, around 9 p.m., at John Bryan State Park. Visitors can park in the campground parking lot and go to the amphitheater for a slide show presentation by a society member, followed by a short walk to the viewing area. For more information, call the park at 767-1274.

—Lauren Heaton