Insight | Do stars burn? Celebrating World Space Week


Do stars burn? Celebrating World Space Week


Mark Dickinson, VP Satellite Operations, celebrates World Space Week by considering the ubiquitous role of satellites and his fascination about space.

This is the annual World Space Week which has the goal of promoting the public understanding of space through talks, blogs, exhibitions and publications. This year’s theme is Space: Guiding Your Way and it is anticipated that there’ll be at least 1,400 events in over 80 countries – focusing on and celebrating satellite navigation.

I am proud that Inmarsat is supporting World Space Week by holding workshops for young people in Alicante at the Volvo Ocean Race Museum to help them understand how satellite communications enables safety, navigation, live TV and crew comms – all made possible by Inmarsat.

Space has a fascination for most of us and I remember clearly when it started for me. It was the early 80s and, based on a heady mix of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I had lots of questions about space that I kept asking my mum. The ones I remember were along the lines of, ‘Fire needs oxygen so how can stars burn in space?’ and ‘If you fly off in a spaceship in a straight line do you come back to where you started?’.

These are typical 10-year-old type questions and my mum did her best to answer them, but eventually told me that if I really wanted to know then perhaps I should try to find out myself.  This was great advice as I went on to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and took a degree in Physics and Astrophysics, followed by a PhD in High Energy Astrophysics. As a consequence I think I now know some of the answers…and if you are interested to know them too then read on!

Fast forward a few decades when, last week, I was participating in a workshop tasked with looking at society’s dependency on space and especially its resilience during a crisis – in this case an imagined severe weather event. Around the table were representatives from most government departments as well as air traffic control, weather forecasters and the like. When we started to unpick their use of space in what they do it soon became apparent that is was almost ubiquitous, permeating every area of their work, however most of them didn’t know it or had even taken a moment to think about it.

The use of space for communications, navigation and earth observation information is everywhere and has almost become part of day-to-day life. It was an eye opener for most involved in the workshop to realise this as it clearly showed that during the last couple of decades space has become deep-rooted in how a modern society works.

At Inmarsat we work in an exciting environment where everything we do is based on our use of space, but even some of us need only pay a passing thought to those boxes of tricks, our constellation of satellites, 36,000km above us.

The use of space will become ever more pervasive in the coming decades. This boom is clear but also the way space is being used is changing, just look at the all the CubeSats (miniaturised satellites for space research) being launched, people buying tickets to become space tourists, the use of near real-time high resolution imaging, communicating at even greater speeds no matter where or when, through to the navigation and control of unmanned transport and the remote monitoring of critical infrastructure. Space is all around us.

And so for those promised answers:

  1. Stars don’t burn – two hydrogen atoms fuse to make helium which is a process which releases a lot of energy. Interesting fact: the photons (light) produced at the centre of the Sun during this fusion reaction actually perform a ‘random walk’ to eventually reach the surface, a process that takes almost 100,000 years… the sunlight you see is old.
  2. So would you come back to where you started? This was actually a good question and really depends on whether the universe is flat, open or closed. We still don’t really know the answer, although ‘flat’ is the cosmologists’ current favourite, so maybe, just as my mum suggested to me, you can try and help find the answer.

About the author

After completing a Ph.D. in High Energy Astrophysics (University of Durham) in 1997, Mark joined the Vega Group as a software engineer working on various defence and space systems. In 2000 Mark joined the Satellite Operations department at Inmarsat as part of a team developing its new satellite control system. In 2005 he became manager of the Satellite Operators Support Group and in 2009 became the Director of Satellite Operations. In 2013 he was appointed Vice President of Satellite Operations. In this role he is responsible for the operation of Inmarsat’s fleet of geostationary telecommunication satellites, as well part of the team defining the specifications and following the development of Inmarsat’s future satellites.