VLA: making galactic contact every day

If you’re seen the movie Contact, you’ve at least, virtually, been to the Very Large Array (VLA). The facility, run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is about three hours from Santa Fe. It’s a long day-trip, but, but if outer space or inter-planetary communication interests you, or you like to visit movie locations, it’s worth the trip.

What is the VLA? It’s an installation of steel and aluminum parabolic dish antennas that comprise the world’s most powerful radio telescope. It sits off US 60 in the middle of nowhere about an hour west of Socorro, NM. As you approach the site, you’ll see the large antennae also known as dishes that comprise this vast scientific instrument.

VLA Photo Steve Collins

The Vistor Center at the VLA welcomes you, photoSteve Collins

The tour starts at the Visitor Center. Take time to watch the 24-minite film Beyond the Visible; the Story of the Very Large Array, narrated by Jodie Foster one of stars of Contact’s. Informative and fascinating, it gives you an idea of the significance of what you’ll be looking at when you walk the site as well as how the telescope works.

Beyond the Visible

The following is a bit of what we learned from the film. The 27 dishes or antennae are each 94 feet tall and 82 feet in diameter. Working together they form a single telescope which, according to Foster, is “larger than New York City.” The movable antennae are set on over 40 miles of tracks. They can extend as far as 13 miles in each direction depending on their configuration. There are four configurations: A, B, C, and D. The A formation is the most wide-spread and the D the most clustered. These antennae monitor the cosmos 24 hours a day observing light across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. This light, says Foster “reveals the birth of stars, the secrets of ancient galaxies and the presence of black holes.” The VLA allows scientists to explore the early stages of galaxy evolution, gaining insight into the first massive black holes in space. Astronomer Amy Reines, who’s interviewed in the film, says that the kind of work they’re doing wouldn’t be possible with any other instrument on earth. With these radio telescopes they can see tens of millions of light-years away. Foster calls the VLA the “foremost astronomical instrument of its kind.” Are you hooked yet? Watch the video on the VLA website, or better yet, visit the VLA in person.

Some VLA facts

VLA photo Steve Collins

Dipole antennaat the VLA photo/ Steve Collins

The official name of the site is the Karl Jansky Very Large Array. Jansky was an American physicist who made the 1932 discovery that objects in space emit radio waves.

All the data collected at the VLA is transmitted to the Domenici Science Operations Center in Socorro for interpretation. The NRAO also operates three other radio telescope sites: Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) located in Peru’s Atacama Desert, Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in Green Bank, West Virginia, and Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) which, while in Hawaii, is operated out of the Socorro location.

The VLA was completed in 1980. As time passed, the electronics were becoming obsolete. In 2003, the NRAO began rebuilding and replacing the telescope’s infratructiur antennae by antenna. The work took a decade to complete. As the work was done antenna by antenna the telescope was up and running the entire time it was being updated.

VLA photo Steve Collins

One of the 27 antennea at the Very Large Array, photo/Steve Collins

The VLA is able to receive weak signals that go as far back in time as the Big Bang. That piece of information was boggling. We were in the presence of an instrument reaches out to the beginning of time.

Why was this site chosen for the VLA? This ancient lake bed in this remote high desert location was chosen for its elevation (almost 7,000 feet above sea level), its flatness of the land, its mostly clear skies and its southwest exposure.

About every four months the antennas moved into a new configuration (either the A, B, C, or D positions.

Take the self-guided VLA tour

VLA photo Steve Collins

The Bracewell Raido Sundial, photo/Steve Collins

As we toured the site we stopped to read the educational signs posted throughout. At the time of our visit, the telescope was in the A formation.

The first thing we passed was the Bracewell Radio Sundial, named for Ronald Bracewell, a pioneer in radio astronomy, it the only sundial of its kind in the world. Check out the concrete piers holding the silver-colored balls. They are a piece of science history. Over 200 prominent astronomers, including two Nobel Prize recipients “signed” the concrete pillars with a chisel when they visited the now-defunct observatory at Stanford. An informational sign tells visitors that the sundial uses radio shadows to tell time. See if you can tell what time it is by the shadows cast.

The antennae (dishes) that make up the VLA’s vast telescope are parabola-shaped, allowing radio waves to bounce off a single spot called the “focus.” A second reflector then transmits the waves to a receiver that turns them into signals. These are transmitted to the Correlator, a supercomputer that receives and combines the signals from all the antennae. According to the posted information the VLA gathers image from all over the sky to “map the radio universe.”

VLA photo Steve Collins

One of the Whisper Dishes at the VLA, photo/Steve Collins

To help visitors better understand how the antennae work, there installed two parabolic dishes (Whisper Dishes) so visitors can better understand the VLA’s ability to amplify the signals which bounce off the focus on the telescope’s antennae. These dishes are set about 30 feet apart. We each stood at one of the dishes and whispered into the focus. Our words were transmitted with crystal clarity. It was as if we were standing right next to each other.

Another sign at the site explains that the signals collected by the telescope are less than a billionth (yes that’s billionth) of the strength of the signals our cell phones pick up. To keep them from interfering with these weak signals coming from outer space, visitors are asked to shut off electronic devices while at the VLA. These weak radio waves the antennae collect are processed into data that becomes what the sign calls “gorgeous views of the once-invisible universe.”

Shiva Shiwana created by artist Jon Barlow Hudson

Shiva Shiwana sculpture by artist artist Jon Barlow Hudson, photo/Steve Collins

The last thing we pass on our walk through the VLA is a three armed stainless steel sculpture titled Shiva Shiwana created by artist Jon Barlow Hudson. The 1980 work, funded by the NM Arts Council, represents the Y shape of the VLA’s tracks and the floating 3-demensional nature of the objects the giant telescope studies.

We headed back to the Visitor Center for a bit before getting back on the road. We would have gone a bit further west and visited Pie Town, a small town sitting on the Continental Divide. It’s on our New Mexico to-visit list. Our quest: the Pie-o-Neer Café, home of Kathy Knapp, the Pie Lady of Pie Town. It was closed the day of our visit so we headed east to Socorro and then north towards home.

If you go:

Pie-O-Neer Cafe in Pie Town photo Steve Collins

You can get a slice of Pie Lady Kathy Knapp’s green chile apple pie at the Pie-O-Neer Cafe in Pie Town photo Steve Collins

Admission to the VLA is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors (65+). Ages 17 and under are admitted free.

The VLA site and Visitor Center are open daily from 8:30am until sunset. Tours are self-guided unless you come on days that guided tours are offered. On Sundays and Mondays free guided tours are offered at 1pm. They also hold them on the first Saturday of the month, at 11am, 1pm and 3pm. In the summer, tours are every Saturday at 11am and 1pm. (Check before you go to make sure the schedule is up-to-date.) Tours are approximately 45 minutes long. The VLA also semi-annual open houses in April and October.

If it’s snowing, call or check their website for current information before you go. The VLA may be closed to visitors during snowy conditions. Their phone number is 575-835-7410 for current information.

If you’re a pie lover, before or after touring the VLA head to the Pie-O-Neer Café in Pie Town for a pie fix. The cafe is open from Thursday through Sunday from 11am “until the pie runs out” from April through early January. Call ahead to make sure they’re open and to reserve a slice of your favorite pie.

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22 Responses to “VLA: making galactic contact every day”

  1. Henry | @fotoeins
    July 27, 2015 at 12:17 am #

    For years, I’d been working with and at astronomical observatories operating at visual to near-infrared wavelengths (re. wavelengths much shorter than radio waves). And now that I’ve been away from the “game” for some time, I’m interested in visiting them again, and I’ve never visited the VLA. ]

    • Billie Frank
      July 27, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

      It’s amazing Henry! If you go, If you’re a pie fan. pick a time of year and day that the Pie-O-Neer Cafe is open.

  2. Lyn (aka) The Travelling Lindfields
    July 27, 2015 at 2:08 am #

    This looks fascinating. We were in Santa Fe a few years ago but couldn’t see everything on our list because fires had closed many of the roads. This is definitely on our list for next visit.

    • Billie Frank
      July 27, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

      The VLA is a very long day trip from Santa Fe, a bit better from Albuquerque. Unless you’re big astronomy fans, I wouldn’t do it on a Santa Fe visit unless you plan at least a week visit. There’s so much to see closer to the city!

  3. noel
    July 27, 2015 at 11:08 am #

    Very cool place to visit and the sculpture is also striking, would do this with some of that pie while I’m walking around.

    • Billie Frank
      July 27, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

      You have to get the pie first, Noel-lol. It’s a bit of a distance away.

  4. Elaine J. Masters
    July 28, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    I’d love to visit this. Thanks for all the details.

    • Billie Frank
      July 28, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

      It’s a very cool place! Hope you get there. Elaine.

  5. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis
    July 28, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    A couple of years ago I went stargazing in Arizona. It was fascinating. This look equally fascinating. The pie looks out of this world, too! 🙂

    • Billie Frank
      July 28, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

      We went star gazing in Santa Fe a few years ago. I was amazed what the night sky looked like from a slightly high-powered telescope. I saw the Milky Way and the rings of Saturn clearly. I’ll never forget it!

  6. Marilyn Jones
    July 29, 2015 at 10:34 am #

    How interesting! I didn’t realize Very Large Array(VLA) was there although I remember the movie “Contact.” Excellent piece and photos!!

    • Billie Frank
      July 29, 2015 at 11:38 am #

      I actually found out about it from a blogger friend years ago. While I’d seen “Contact” I didn’t know about the VLA. Glad we discovered it.

  7. Carol Colborn
    July 29, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    How very interesting! We went to Santa Fe in 2012. Had we known of this, we would have gone. Our day trips were to Los Alamos, Chaco, and Taos Pueblo. Do you also have a post on Trinity Point? Understand they are only open there 2 days in a year.

    • Billie Frank
      July 29, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

      Chaco is a fab, but really long day trip. We did it unintentionally one day. Got way too little time there. VLA takes a bit less time to get to than Chaco but not much.

  8. Irene S Levine
    July 29, 2015 at 5:36 pm #

    The name itself is intriguing enough to lure visitors: Very Large Array!
    Thanks for sharing this great review of your visit.

  9. Shelley McKeating
    July 29, 2015 at 7:55 pm #

    We did see Contact and it would be cool to see the real VLA in Arizona. If we go I would definitely stop at the Pie-O-Neer Cafe. That green chile apple pie is a show-stopper!!

    • Billie Frank
      July 29, 2015 at 9:50 pm #

      It is cool- but you have to come to NM. AZ has some great stuff but not the VLA.

  10. Paula McInerney
    July 29, 2015 at 11:22 pm #

    I went to CERN in Bern; does that count that I sort of know what a VLA is. I am not good at this stuff, but the pie looks good 🙂

    • Billie Frank
      July 30, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

      If they have radio frequency telescopes- it might. Don’t know about CERN.

  11. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    July 30, 2015 at 1:06 am #

    I would love some of that pie. I wouldn’t mind seeing what one can see through these magnifiers, but I’m the kind of person who wants to know the time rather than how to build the watch. 😉

    • Billie Frank
      July 30, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

      I’d love some of that pie, too. Luckily we’re eaten Kathy’s pies, but not at the card. The telescope at VLA transmits radio frequencies to computers- you can’t look through it.

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