Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Very Large Array in the plains of San Agustin, New Mexico

One of the radio antennas of the Very Large Array in New Mexico
One of the radio antennas of the Very Large Array in New Mexico
Beginning in 1980, the 28 radio antennas of the Very Large Array have been collecting radio signals from the deep universe and helping astronomers unlock such mysteries as black holes and how stars are created. A trip to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory lets you walk right up to one of these amazing pieces of machinery for a visit you won't forget. See the rest of my pictures after the jump.

Notice the antennas on the right side going off into the distance
The VLA has been seen in movies, TV commercials, and even music videos. One of the most notable is in the movie Contact where Jodie Foster's character hears the first radio communication from an alien species. That isn't really what the VLA is used for (that's SETI and the dish in Arecibo) but it is used to help astronomers see much farther into the universe than is possible with optical telescopes. Optical telescopes collect visible light, while the VLA collects invisible (to the human eye) radio waves.

But it takes a very large telescope to collect distant radio signals, and for that the VLA is comprised of 27 enormous radio dishes (and a spare) which are moved along rail road tracks into specific positions. Sometimes the antennas are close together, and at other times they are many miles apart.

You can walk right up to one of the antennas on the self-guided tour
Each antenna dish is 82 feet across, and weighs hundreds of tons. Yet when are being adjusted for position, the dish rotates so quickly you can see it moving.

The antennas are so sensitive that you have to put your cell phone into airplane mode to prevent interference with the radio signals the antenna is collecting.

Railroad car about to move one of the antennas
A special railroad car transports each antenna when it needs to be moved into a new position, or moved to the maintenance shed. The railroad car moves under the antenna, lifts it up and off its posts, and then moves it to its new position.

Maintenance shed where antennas are upgraded and repaired
The array is located at over 7000 feet in altitude in the San Agustin plains of New Mexico, which is an ancient dry lake bed. The high altitude reduces atmospheric interference, while the surrounding mountains block electromagnetic signals from the surrounding communities.

Visitor center
You can take yourself on a self-guided tour most days of the year, and there are a few days each month with guided tours. There is visitor center with a movie, displays, and a well-stocked (and affordable) gift shop. Check out the NRAO web site for details.

There is a rest stop along Highway 60 where the railroad tracks cross the highway, and you can stop for a photo
It's about a two hour drive from Albuquerque, which is full of wonderful desert scenery. And if you plan your trip well, you won't have any trouble finding some good eats before or after your visit --check out rest of my blog posts from New Mexico, and Pie Town is less than an hour away.

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