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On Walkabout At: The Very Large Array (VLA), New Mexico

For those who have watched the Jodie Foster movie, “Contact” will instantly recognize the satellite dishes that can be found at the Very Large Array (VLA) located southern New Mexico:

The film adaption of Carl Sagan’s book may not have lived up to the expectations of many fans of Sagan, but a visit to the VLA is well worth checking out if in the Socorro area of New Mexico.  The VLA is about an hour drive west of Socorro on Highway 60:

Highway 60 climbs in altitude from Socorro towards the Plains of San Agustin:

Picture from the Very Large Array

The Plains of San Agustin also sometimes spelled Augustin, is a large, flat grassland surrounded by high mountain peaks:

Picture from the Very Large Array

Here is what this plain looks like on Google Earth:

plains of san agustin

These plains are the remains of lake that was formed during the last Ice Age before drying up in the centuries afterwards.  The high elevation and isolation of this extinct lake is what made these plains an ideal site for scientists to study the heavens.  The scientists were not the only ones though to benefit from these grasslands; there was plenty of cattle that could be seen grazing all across the plain as well:

Picture from the Very Large Array

The Plains of San Agustin is so large that when we entered the plain we could not even see the massive VLA dishes.  It took about 20 minutes of driving before the antennas even came into view:

Picture from the Very Large Array

When looked at from afar the sheer size of the Plains of San Agustin makes the antennas look much smaller than they really are:

Picture from the Very Large Array

Picture from the Very Large Array

From Highway 60 there is a turn off on Highway 52 that takes visitors to the VLA:

Picture from the Very Large Array

Even when the dishes were in view it still took about another 15 minutes to reach the site:

Picture from the Very Large Array

Here is a view of the dishes from the entrance:

Picture from the Very Large Array

The first stop at the VLA is to stop by the visitor center and learn more about these incredible dishes.  The visitor center has a short movie as well as a small museum for visitors to check out.  After spending about a half hour in the visitor center my wife and I learned that construction of the VLA was completed in 1980 and is one of the most powerful radio telescopes ever built and is used by not only American astronomers, but visiting astronomers from countries across the world.  This observatory uses radial telescopes to study celestial objects.  The radio waves received from celestial objects are processed to produce images of these objects.  Here is an example of one of these images:

This composite image of the Whirlpool Galaxy, Messier 51, shows that the radio emission from the galaxy’s cold hydrogen gas (blue) extends well beyond the optical light emitted by its stars (Credit: NRAO/AUI, J. Uson).

From the visitor center we then walked outside to get a better look at these radio telescopes.  The VLA has a nice trail complete with interpretive signs.  The trail first passes the various office buildings that compose the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) offices that manage the VLA:

VLA Office Building

Just passed the office buildings the trail heads for the dishes:

Picture from the Very Large Array

Only up close can the size of these antennas be fully appreciated:

Picture from the Very Large Array

There are 27 of these antennas and each antenna is 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. The data from the antennas is combined electronically to give the resolution of an antenna 36km (22 miles) across, with the sensitivity of a dish 130 meters (422 feet) in diameter when the VLA’s antennas are spread out at its maximum distance:

Picture from the Very Large Array

Picture from the Very Large Array

The antennas are moved into different positions by using two giant transporters that pull the antennas across a 63 kilometer (39 mile) network of double, standard gauge track.

Picture from the Very Large Array

Picture from the Very Large Array

The moving of these antennas allow astronomers to change the resolution of the radio images they are capturing just like the zoom lens on a camera.  The day we visited the VLA the astronomers must have wanted a high resolution image of whatever they were looking at considering how close the antennas were to each other:

Picture from the Very Large Array

After finishing our circuitous route around the VLA my wife and I then headed back to our car for the long drive back to El Paso.  From El Paso the VLA is about a 3.5 hour drive to reach.  For those traveling from Albuquerque it is a much shorter 2 hour drive.  However, either way from both Albuquerque and El Paso the VLA is an easy day trip to check out.  However, for those not interested in astronomy the Very Large Array may not be all that worthwhile to check out.  For my wife and I though we had a great time checking the site out even though we had to push our baby daughter around in a stroller. Even our baby daughter had a great time visiting the VLA as she oowed and awed during the film at the visitor center.  So all in all we had a great family day trip to the VLA.

For those interested in conducting their own day trip the Very Large Array, the visitor opens at 0830 an closes at dusk daily.  Special guided tours are available by reservation only.

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