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Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009
Astronomer Mark Thompson's star turn on The One Show

By Zoe Applegate
BBC Norfolk

Astronomer Mark Thompson
Astronomy expert Mark Thompson has been booked for four films

He was just 10 years old when he gazed through a telescope for the first time - what he saw in the dark cloak of the night sky sparked a life-long passion.

The spectacular image of Saturn with its dazzling rings was enough to have Mark Thompson hooked on star-gazing.

It's a love which 26 years on he's now sharing with the nation with a guest spot on a prime time TV show.

The 36-year-old has been tasked with the job of explaining the mysteries of the universe on BBC 1's The One Show, which attracts around five million viewers.

It's hard for him to comprehend that a childhood trip to accompany his dad to an event at their local observatory in Colney, Norwich, has shaped his life so whole-heartedly.

"I can still visualise seeing Saturn for the first time," said Mark, who is chairman of Norwich Astronomical Society, based at Seething observatory.

"The observatory had a special event on Saturn which was just like one of the public events I now run and lecture at.

"My dad had an interest in astronomy and for him that event was enough but I sat at the telescope and was hooked," he said.

 Saturn viewed from the Cassini spacecraft. Image released by NASA 29 June, 2004
It was a view of Saturn that ignited Mark's life-long passion for astronomy

Seething observatory

Since then Mark, who lives with partner Karen and their six-month-old daughter Phoebe at Wortwell, near Harleston, has spent most Friday nights at observatory meetings.

But his platform to discuss the complexities of constellations has been extended beyond all his expectations after landing the regular slot on the BBC show, which goes out every week night at 7pm.

The purpose of his reports is to highlight the more general appeal of star-gazing with 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy - building on his work in the mid-2000s when he was kids' astronomer for BBC Norfolk.

"Most people have got an interest in the sky and stars, even if it's a passing interest," said Mark.

"People can associate with it and we're teaching them what they can see without telescopes."

So far Mark has reported on astronomy news items and has presented three films for The One Show on astronomy.

The first was shot on location in Norfolk; the second at Stonehenge and another was filmed at Scotland's Galloway Forest 'dark park' - the third in four seasonal videos to be originally booked by producers.

A further four films have also been commissioned taking Mark's appearances to the end of 2010.

With each report comes a coveted slot afterwards on The One Show sofa opposite presenters Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley - and with millions of people tuned in to the live programme it can be a nerve-wracking experience.

Mark said: "The first time I went on I was stood behind the cameras ready to go on, thinking, 'I can't believe five million people are watching this!'

"But the opportunity to get to five million prime time viewers has been fantastic."

Air ambition

His love of the sky was further demonstrated when he left his job two years ago at insurers Aviva to train as a commercial airline pilot.

But a downturn in the travel industry combined with the arrival of his daughter meant Mark had to put his dream to be a pilot on hold, leaving just one more flight test to complete before he's fully qualified.

"I love the vastness of space," said Mark. "I don't know if this flying thing and astronomy is related but I have got an affinity with things in the sky."

Local experience

Mark has since returned to work as an IT project manager at the Norwich-based insurance company, juggling work commitments with broadcasting - a role where his experience as leader of the city's astronomy group has been useful.

A telescope in space
Mark feels that the marvels of space can appeal to everyone

"Doing the lectures and chairing meetings has definitely helped," he said.

It was a local appearance on long-running BBC show The Stars at Night and a subsequent feature on The Culture Show which brought a group of inner-city children to meet Mark at a Norfolk event that caught the interest of The One Show producers around two years ago.

His hope now is that his straight-forward approach will lead to more stints beyond the initial commission of four films.

"I've been told that they've liked what I've done so far," he said.

"I don't come over as a scientist or an academic, I'm an enthusiast and so hopefully I can appeal to everyone.

"Astronomy has got an 'anoraky' image so hopefully I can help change that," he added.

In pictures: Norfolk from space
04 Mar 09 |  Nature & Outdoors



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