That’s right, drive really fast. I’m not saying I broke any speed limits (then again, I’m not saying I didn’t). Besides, in the open desert, speed limits are mere suggestions.
With so little time to spare, I decided not to stop, no matter how tempting the picture opportunity. That led me to take a few pictures like this one…
… from inside the car, as I drove. The landscape truly was beautiful–beginning with rolling hills along US 180 and NM 12, then eventually flattening out into wide-open desert, with just a few mountains poking up, miles apart. In the sky were dozens of small, disk-shaped clouds that looked like space ships, which was an appropriate prelude to my next destination.
I made it to the VLA with only about 15 minutes to spare before sunset. In fact, it took meexactly 2 hours from the time I left the catwalk parking lot, to the VLA parking lot. Whew.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array is quite a sight to behold. It consists of 22 huge antennas (that look like satellite dishes) all pointing towards some unknown universe. The antennas, which are 82 feet in diameter, all work together, gathering radio waves from outer space. Then, computers can assemble the data from each dish using mathematical formulas, effectively multiplying the effectiveness of each dish. The end result is the ability to hear signals, which would otherwise require a 22-mile-wide dish.
Although they each weigh 230 tons, each antenna is movable. Railroad track is laid out in a “Y” shape, with each leg stretching 13 miles from the center. Above, you see the concrete footings on which the dishes rest, once they’re moved into place. The wider the separation, the greater the sensitivity.
Here’s proof that I made it to the VLA just before sunset.
There’s a visitor center at the VLA which, if you arrive during the day, should be your first stop. After hours, you’re still allowed to roam around the base of the big antennas. Officially, visitors are welcome on the property until sunset, after that you’ll probably be told to leave.
Sunset is a great time to visit the VLA, when the final light of the day shines back on the low mountains nearby.
And what a sunset it was! The New Mexico sky just can’t be beat.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006.