Very Large Array . New Mexico
Archive time! - as you can probably tell by the photo quality. About six years ago I took a road trip down to Albuquerque and points further south. This was pre-blog days in the infancy of web 2.0, and before I even had a digital camera and started taking pictures of every mundane thing I came across.
The Very Large Array is located in Magdalena, New Mexico, about 35 miles west of Socorro on highway 60. The sped up videos of these satellite dishes moving harmoniously in sequence have been featured in countless commercials, and the photos of the dishes are seen on stock images everywhere – despite the relevance to the application or product.
With radio astronomy being the key element of research at the VLA the dishes are loaned to scientific and educational institutions throughout the year. Organizations submit an application to use the dishes for a select amount of days or weeks. If and when approved their time is allocated based on what time of year the dish configuration suits them.
The satellite dishes are moved on railroad tracks in a “Y” formation, each leg extending 14 miles into the valley. The dish configuration changes four times a year. When “bunched together” they return signals from our closer interstellar neighbors, and at their most outward extension they return signals from the furthest possible reaches of space. Most photographs are shown at the configuration closest together.
A walking tour is available during daylight hours, and when I was there the facility was conducting sporadic guided tours depending on the time or year. We were fortunate enough to have a guide take our group of about 10 around the main station building and the maintenance hanger where we viewed one satellite dish up close. In reviewing their site it appears guide tours are now offered just twice per year.
While the applications are of the most high tech and futuristic nature, unfortunately the computer systems that run them are ancient. During my visit in 2002 our guide explained the difficulty of obtaining replacement parts for various systems. The 1970s technology still churns away, and it reminds me of photos from the soon to be retired space shuttle electronics. I think my iPhone today has more computing power. Just another reason to stand behind our leaders who support science and technology exploration.
The VLA’s largest pop culture role came from the 1997 film “Contact” in which Jodie Foster plays a scientist based at the VLA before being recruited to take an intergalactic trip through a wormhole. Our guide dropped a few Jodie Foster stories, including how the children featured in the film’s final scene, (where she returns to work at the VLA,) were students from the local village of Magdalena.
If you’re a science geek like myself and roaming the desolate portions of interstate 25 through southern New Mexico the Very Large Array is an interesting detour and a unique peek into how we are able to “see” into the vast universe via radio signals.
by James Van Dellen