Stargazing Lives Mark Thompson.

We spoke to Stargazing Live presenter (and pilot) Mark Thompson about all things astronomy related.

How did you first get started in astronomy?

I was ten years old and my dad took me to the observatory at the edge of the University of East Anglia. It’s now moved to the home of the Norwich Astronomical Society, where I’ve been chairman for 14-odd years. I got taken along to that observatory and I saw an image of Saturn through the telescope and that was it. That fired my imagination and hooked me on the subject, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

Do you do much observing yourself?

Yeah, absolutely, I’ve been doing it for donkey’s years now. I remember my first telescope was a cheap second-hand refractor, it wasn’t a great image at all, but I’ve also made my own telescopes in the past including a six-inch reflector and a 14-inch reflector. I’ve had telescopes all my life, and I’ve now got a Vixen VMC260. I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, what with two young children, television work and writing, but when I can I absolutely do like to go outside.

How did you get involved with Stargazing Live?

I did some work for my local astronomy society, and we ran a star party in north Norfolk about seven years ago, and The Sky At Night wanted to do a piece about star parties. They came down and Lucy Green interviewed me, and I was asked to do a couple of films for the International Year of Astronomy.

Off the back of that I got contacted by the BBC who were looking at doing this stargazing show and they asked if I’d be happy to work with Dara [O Briain], Brian [Cox] and Lucy on that show, and of course I was more than happy to do that. I’ve done it for the last three years, which has been fantastic.

What have been your favourite bits of doing the show?

I like the fact that we actually try to do live stargazing, even though it’s very difficult because we’re reliant on the good old British weather. But it’s great when it actually does come off.

What’s it like working with Dara and Brian?

It’s good fun, you know. It’s great because they usually do physics stuff, whereas The Sky At Night tries do a bit more of the practical stuff, so to do something that actually brings the two together is brilliant, and I think that’s what’s made the show such a success. We’ve had three and a half million viewers this last series, which for a science show is fantastic, let alone an astronomy show!

Do you wish Stargazing Live was more regular?

Yeah, of course I do. I would love to do it twice a year, but of course there are issues with scheduling, so the only time you could fit in another big live broadcast would be during the summer months, which for astronomy is possibly the worst time of year.

What advice do you have for first time astronomers?

One is an age-old thing: don’t rush out and buy a telescope. I’ve seen people spend thousands of pounds on telescopes and, you know, while it’s tempting, practically, binoculars are a cracking way to start doing astronomy because you start to see more without all the problems of trying to find your way around the sky while managing a mechanical telescope.

So I think absolutely get yourself a pair of binoculars, and get down to your local astronomy society as well, because there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience there. You can look at telescopes, look through telescopes, and you can talk to people about their experiences. And that kind of stuff is invaluable. In a year or two years’ time, if you’ve got your head around binoculars, then go off and treat yourself to a telescope as well.

Do you think amateur astronomy is now more popular than ever?

Yes, it is more popular, I mean astronomy societies have seen quite a surge in memberships since Stargazing. Live started, which is fantastic. I think amateur astronomy in the UK has always been very strong, but I think there has been an increase in the translation of people who’ve got a passing interest to doing something about it and actually joining societies and taking that extra step. And I like to think that Stargazing Live was the show that encouraged people to actually take that little step.

What’s your new book about?

It’s kind of a fusion, to steal a word from cookery, between astrophysics and looking around the night sky. So what I’ve done is I’ve broken the book down into 12 chapters covering every month of the year. I pick a meaty astrophysics subject to talk about for the first section of each chapter, and then explain how to find your way around the sky that month in the next section. We all need something to hook information on to, so it’s done with a hook to learn your way around the night sky.

Finally, we hear that you’re also a qualified pilot.

Yes, I am.

So have you been tempted to try to fly one of these new space planes?

It’s funny because I’ve been asked that question many times, would I like to go to space. And, yeah, I love flying, so I think I’d get a real kick out of just riding in a space plane. There would be nothing that would stop me doing that at all.

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