The Very Large Array: Listening to Space

So here was my problem.  I left the Catwalk Trail around 4:05.  I wanted to arrive at the Very Large Array (those larger-than-life satellite-dish-looking antennas that you see all the time in movies and commercials) by sunset.  The sun was due to set at 6:22, and I was at least 130 miles away.  What do you think I did?

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.

From Glenwood, NM and the Catwalk Trail, take US Rte. 180 north (west) to NM Rte. 12, which will then take you to US Rte. 60 east.  The VLA is about 12 miles east of the one-horse town of Datil.

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.

Scenes from the VLA often pop up in TV commercials, advertising some kind of new cell phone or internet device that has nothing at all to do with the array (but heck, it looks cool!).  Perhaps the VLA’s most famous appearance came in the Jodie Foster movie Contact, in which you see a great shot of the VLA in the opening scenes.  If you haven’t seen Contact in a while, consider renting it before your visit to the VLA.

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.

During my visit, the Very Large Array was arranged in what the NRAO calls the “A” configuration.  In the “A” position, each dish is positioned as far apart as possible.  The VLA configuration is changed about every 4 months–configuration “B” is closer together than “A”, “C” is closer than “B”, and in configuration “D” the dishes are practically on top of each other.  For the best pictures, you should probably plan your visit around a “D” configuration, otherwise it’s hard to see more than one dish at a time.  You can check the current configuration at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s VLA website, here.

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.

From the VLA, continue east about 50 miles to the next major town of Socorro.  The drive won’t take long, since the road is wide, flat, and straight.  In Socorro you’ll find plenty of places to stay–I found the Super 8 to be satisfactory, and there’s a steak restaurant next door that provides a discount for visitors staying at the Super 8. (There are also a couple of independent motels in the small town of Magdalena, about halfway between the VLA and Socorro.)

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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