My … what a Very Large Array you have there …

VLA  010VLA  001VLA  003New Mexico is a study in contrasts.  It offers beauty and culture that enchants; massive landscapes, gorgeous sunsets, diverse wildlife, rich cultural history, interesting architecture and beautiful art, and also science that fascinates and challenges: various types of scientific research facilities, military testing, a space shuttle landing strip and the Very Large Array (VLA).

The VLA is located 50 miles from the nearest town, Socorro, and 20 minutes from the village of Magdalena (population 1,200) at 7,000 feet on the plains of San Agustine.

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VLA  009Some of you may recall seeing the VLA in the movie “Contact”, starring Jodie Foster, about listening for sounds from alien life in space.  But that is not at all the function of these radio antennas that are spread out throughout this area of the desert.VLA  013

There is a visitor center that provides lots of information in a compact location.  The visitor center also offers a very informative and interesting 45-minute film about the VLA narrated by Jodie Foster.  And some mind numbing technical videos narrated by several geeky scientists :-).VLA  011

VLA  019VLA  083And the very best part is a short walking tour (pets are allowed!) that brings you up close and personal with one of the antennas and provides even more information.  In fact, when we walked up to the dish, it, along with all of the other radio antennas, began to rotate.  The direction that the antennas faced changed about four times during our short visit!

I’ve included some information from the VLA brochure and website in my comments below.

The walking tour begins by “The Bracewell Radio Sundial”, a large metal sphere mounted atop a slim metal post.  Ronald N. Bracewell made major contributions to developing the mathematical techniques for combining the radio signals received by multiple antennas to produce detailed images of astronomical objects. VLA  081

Concrete piers from Bracewell’s Stanford radio telescope serve as markers.  Bracewell invited his peers to sign these, and many of the signatures belong to the early pioneers of radio astronomy.

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The Very Large Array (VLA) is one of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatories and consists of 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration, tuned to a kind of light, radio waves, that is outside the range of visible light.   Each antenna is 82 feet across, over 90 feet in height and weighs over 230 tons.  The signals from each antenna are combined electronically to act as a powerful telescope.VLA  016

Radio waves reveal previously unseen activities of stars, galaxies, and planets and map the chemical workings of the gas and dust clouds that create them.  Optical telescopes cannot see into these places, because those same clouds block their view.VLA  023

The VLA is an interfermometer; it operates by multiplying the data from each pair of telescopes together to form interference patterns.  The scientists take these patterns and use a mathematical technique called the Fourier transform to make maps.VLA  021

Unhindered, radio waves can travel for billions of years across the vastness of space.  They provide the VLA with the data that help construct a timeline of the Universe – from its ancient past to its possible future.  Since it first began watching the skies back in 1976, the VLA has observed nearly 43,000 different cosmic objects.VLA  012

Discoveries of the VLA have ranged from the surprising detection of water ice on Mercury, the nearest planet to the Sun, to major contributions to our understanding of active regions on the Sun, the physics of superfast “cosmic Jets” of material pouring from the hearts of distant galaxies, the mysterious central region of our own Galaxy, and the atmospheres of other stars.

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Every four months, the configuration (separation between the antennas) is changed.   The different separations yield different views that can be combined.  At its widest separation, the merged observations of the VLA have the qualities of a giant telescope with an eye 22 miles across.  There are over 40 miles of railroad tracks and multiple giant transporters used to relocate the antennas across these tracks.VLA  017

Most of the astronomers who are awarded observing projects on the VLA are located elsewhere around the globe.  On their behalf, a telescope operator controls the VLA as it observes the sky for 5,000 hours every year, both day and night.VLA  022

In 2012, the VLA was transformed by a new suite of receivers, a supercomputer, and the replacement of its old wiring with nearly 3,000 miles of fiber optics while maintaining the external antennas to save on costs.  At that time the VLA was rededicated in honor of the father of radio astronomy, Karl G. Jansky.  VLA  015

It’s quite a sight to see all of these antennas in the middle of nowhere and such a great learning experience about the tools scientists use to learn more about the Universe.

~ BrendaVLA  082

10 thoughts on “My … what a Very Large Array you have there …

    • I visited the Arecibo radio telescope for the first time when I was a kid in Puerto Rico. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which operates the VLA, operates several other facilities in the U.S. and of course there are others not operated by NRAO (including Arecibo). There is a lot more to this field for sure. The VLA is located between two small villages, each of which is about 25 miles away. In any case, since it only receives and does not emit radio waves it should not be harmful.

  1. How long will you be staying in Tucson? We have relatives there. How is the strawberry vinegar holding up? We are enjoying riding along with you via your most informative posts. Margo & Henry

    • Hi Margo! Happy New Year to you and Henry. We were just reflecting on what an awesome year we’ve just been fortunate enough to have and our visit to Nova Scotia was so wonderful. We enjoyed giving out the special sweet vinegar to our wine group friends back in Denver and love our salad dressing. We have been here in Tucson for over a week and unfortunately are moving on on Friday. But we can say that your relatives are fortunate, Tucson is absolutely beautiful. Thanks again for your warm hospitality. We are so pleased that you’ve been following along. All the best for the new year. Hector and Brenda

  2. Hi there, I recently completed a University project which involved the VLA, and I have to give a poster presentation on it, and I would like to use one of your photographs as the background image. Would that be ok? It will of course be attributed to you in the references.

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