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By Miriam Raftery

Northern lights images from Anza Borrego desert

February 22, 2009 (Anza Borrego) — In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy, we thought it fitting to share with our readers the beauty and grandeur of the night sky as depicted by Dennis Mammana, world-famous night sky photographer and East County resident. His dazzling photos include rare shots of the Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) viewed from the Anza-Borrego desert, where he lives, as well as images of solar and lunar eclipses, comets, and other astronomical events taken around the globe. Also a prolific writer and instructor, Mammana teaches courses and hosts camp-outs locally, also leading astronomy and sky photography expeditions worldwide--such as an upcoming journey to China to view and photograph a total solar eclipse.

Northern lights images from Anza Borrego desert

"The two things that are most exciting to me and that inspire me the most to take really great photographs are the Northern Lights and total eclipses of the sun," Mammana revealed. "When you are standing beneath either of them, it is a totally alien experience. You can't describe them with words." But on film, he captures the dramatic images using, in most cases, a Canon digital camera and tripod. Unlike astronomical photography utilizing telescopes, sky photography can be accomplished by amateurs without a costly investment. "You don't need expensive gear," Mammana noted. "I use mostly wide angle lenses and relatively short exposures; virtually all my photos are taken with less than a 30-second exposure--and you can do that with almost any camera."

Lunar corona, Alaska

Author of six books on astronomy and the "Stargazer" nationally syndicated newspaper column published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, he has held planetarium positions at the Smithsonian Institution and San Diego's Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Last year, he was invited to join The World at Night (TWAN), an organization of the world's most highly acclaimed sky photographers who have teamed up to photograph world heritage sites at night, from Egypt to Easter Island. "We are trying to show that not only is the night sky beautiful, but it really is the one thing that links people around the world together," Mammana disclosed in an exclusive interview with East County Magazine. "I could go outside tonight and see the same thing a soldier in Iraq is seeing."

His interest in photography began as a child during the 1960s, when he took photos through a microscope with friends. But he recalled, "I was

Easter Island comet

much more interested in the night sky. I used to look at Sky & Telescope magazine. I saw pictures in there and thought, `I can do that.' So I bought myself a $5 Kodak vigilant Vigilant Junior Six-20 camera, a bellows thing, 120 film, and a very cheap tripod. I set up in my backyard and started taking pictures, and built a darkroom in the basement--It was just so much fun, and it went on from there."

He moved from Tucson to San Diego in 1987, then in 2003, moved to Borrego. "It is so dark here and so clear most of the time," he noted, adding that he loves living near the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in a small town with visitors who appreciate the natural world. Recently, he has been part of an effort to make Borrego the first California community--and only the second town in the U.S., after Flagstaff, Arizona--to be designated a "Dark Skies" community by the International Dark Sky Association (www.darksky.org). The goal is to preserve the region's dark skies from light pollution by future development.

Annular eclipse of sun over La Catedral de la Asunción in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico

Among his most startling and unusual images are photos taken of the Northern lights--from the Anza-Borrego desert. Most commonly seen in Alaska and other northern latitude locations, the Northern lights are visible once or twice a year in East County's desert, though far fainter than in northern regions. "It's very faint and we do not see the colors very well with the human eye, so they typically look grey--though I have seen reds and yellows from here," Mammana said of the displays visible here. But he added, "The camera is not limited by that physiology, so the camera sees the real colors and the photographs tend to be more dramatic here." Neither still nor video cameras, however, can adequately capture the movement of an aurora borealis, however, making witnessing the phenomenon in person a unique experience.

Annular eclipse of sun in San Diego

Visitors to Mammana's website (www.DennisMammana.com) can view a gallery of his works, with additional images online at www.twanight.org. In addition, aficionados of night sky viewing can sign up for a free newsletter in which Mammana announces upcoming celestial events, such as eclipse, comets, and missile launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base which leave visible trails in San Diego’s night sky. Local visibility of the Northern lights, however, can only be predicted short-term. Mammana's site includes links for those interested to get information in real-time on these and other astronomical events.

Solar eclipse, Egypt

Mammana teaches courses for the public on stargazing and night sky photography at Anza-Borrego as well as on occasion, at other locations in San Diego County. At times, he has partnered with regional astronomy associations to provide telescopes for viewing and photographing the cosmos. He has also spoken before numerous organizations, given presentations at resorts and aboard cruise ships, and been a guest on radio and TV programs.

On February 28, he will be teaming up with California Overland Expeditions for an excursion that includes exploring the desert's wonders, followed by a gourmet chuck wagon dinner, campfire, and stargazing. For more information on this and other overnight events, visit www.dennismammana.com/events/overnights.htm.

Other upcoming programs include an April 4th night sky photography class in Joshua Tree National Park (three to four hours east of San Diego),  and a July trip to China to witness a solar eclipse. The latter is nearly sold out. (Editor's note: Photographing a solar eclipse requires special precautions to avoid eye damage, but can result in stunning images with appropriate instruction.) A November trip to photograph the Northern Lights in Norway is also planned. In addition, Mammana is organizing a trek to Kenya in 2010 to view an annular solar eclipse.

Dennis Mammana

This year, 2009, has been designated the International Year of Astronomy in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo's discoveries. Those discoveries "revolutionized not only astronomy, but our place in the universe," Mammana observed. For more information on events commemorating the historic occasion, visit www.astronomy2009.org.

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