Mark Thompson has had stars in his eyes since he was 10 and saw Saturn’s mysterious rings through a telescope. Now he’s on a mission to convince us to turn our eyes heavenwards. STACIA BRIGGS reports.

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It’s been a stellar year for Mark Thompson and it’s set to be just as heavenly in 2012. The success of BBC2’s Stargazing Live event last January has led to another three-night series this month which Mark will again help to present alongside Prof Brian Cox and Dara O Briain.

On January 16, 17 and 18 there will be live shows broadcast from the control room of the Jodrell Bank Observatory with audience interaction and interviews with some of Britain’s finest astronomical minds to explore the majestic wonders of the skies.

Subjects set to be tackled include why the moon causes the tides, how we know where black holes are when they are impossible to see and what we will actually say if we ever make contact with an alien race.

Norfolk’s Mark Thompson, resident astronomer on BBC1’s The One Show and president of Norwich Astronomical Society, will present a number of segments filmed across the country.

“This year’s Stargazing Live is going to be bigger and better than 2011. We’re concentrating more on practical astronomy and how people at home can observe the night sky for themselves,” he said.

“We’ll be telling people what equipment is best for them while also stressing that even if you don’t want to buy a telescope, you can still see a great deal with the naked eye. I don’t want people to think that astronomy is all about science – it doesn’t have to be, it can be as simple as going outside and looking at the stars.”

One of Mark’s videos is about choosing a telescope, another sees him investigating light pollution by persuading a Dartmoor village to switch off all its lights to see the effect it has on the night sky.

“On the night of the third show, there will be a big switch-off and we’ll see what difference it has on what you can see in the sky.”

Another video sees him taking a group of amateur astronomers from Greenwich in London to the dark skies of the Cotswolds to illustrate the difference between a light-polluted sky and one where light pollution is at a minimum.

“It was really lovely, because I took one guy who’d been an amateur astronomer for 40 years but had never seen the Milky Way,” he said.

“Here in Norfolk we can get quite blasé about what we can see in the night sky because with only a few exceptions, most places in the county are very dark and we’re used to being able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

“I think we all take it for granted a bit, but Norfolk’s night skies are one of the main reasons I’ve stayed in the county – it’s a fantastic place to see the stars.”

Co-produced by the Open University, Stargazing Live will include BBC events nationwide, including BBC East stargazing through the eyes of the ancients at Flag Fen, near Peterborough.

As well as giving people the technical know-how they need if they choose to take their amateur astronomy to another level, he will also look at devices on the market which help people to navigate their way through the night sky.

“We’ll be looking at lots of brilliant apps on the market which you can buy for your computer or your phone and which help you to find your way round the sky.

“Last year, we concentrated on planispheres, which are charts of the night sky made from two discs of plastic which rotate against each other – the bottom disc has a chart of the whole sky and the top disc has a transparent window through which you can see the sky for the night in question.

“They’re great, but many people prefer to use something which you can carry round with you and which points you in the right direction through your phone. These apps are opening up a whole new world for people who might have worried that planispheres were too difficult to use – they’re also great for children.”

Mark said the next 12 months would bring some celestial treats.

“There’s a lot going on in the night sky in 2012, in particular the transit of Venus which is a rare occurrence because it only happens once in a lifetime if you’re lucky. You need to be careful observing it when it appears as a disc moving across the sun, but there are safe ways to do it and it should be amazing.

“There are also plenty of meteor showers to see this year during new moons, which means the sky will be very dark and sightings should be good.

“What I want to do is involve people in astronomy and encourage them to go outside on a dark night and look up into the sky,” said Mark. “Whether you head outdoors with a telescope or binoculars or just pull up a deckchair and a blanket and sit outside your back door, we want people to look at the stars and see what astronomy has to offer.”

On a personal note, Mark has won a book deal and is writing a book, to be published next year, which fuses physics, a guide to the night sky and practical astronomy.

“It’s been a brilliant year and I’m hoping that 2012 will be even better,” said the father-of-two, who lives on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.

“The night sky is absolutely beautiful – magical, in fact. I just want as many people to appreciate it as possible.”


BBC Stargazing Live will be on BBC2 on January 16, 17 and 18. Visit 
bbc.co.uk/tv/features/stargazing or visit markthompsonastronomy.com

1 comment

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    Report this comment

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    Sunday, January 15, 2012

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