Saturday, June 3, 2017

Large, Very Large

Magdelena, NM – High 77  Low 58

Time to check off a bucket list item.

In 1997 I saw the movie Contact with Jodie Foster. At that time I knew that visiting the Very Large Array had to be in my future and today was the day. Jim hadn’t seen the movie and really didn’t know what to expect.


In the early 1960s scientists and astronomers knew that an array of radio telescopes (an array is a group of several radio telescopes observing together as it  were a single telescope many miles across) to work with the giant, single dish telescopes.


They started with a four telescope array used during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1972, Congress approved the funding of the VLA project.

Location, Location, Location

Cosmic radio waves are billions of times fainter than manmade radio waves. Radio telescopes must be placed where they can collect the most cosmic radio waves without any radio interference from man or nature.


The Plains of San Agustin is a flat stretch of desert with no major cities in sight. The Plains are ringed by a natural fortress of rock that keeps out any traveling radio pollution from cities even hundreds of miles away.


The desert climate of the Plains is also critical to the success of the VLA. Humidity is a real problem in radio astronomy because water molecules distort the radio waves passing through them.


There are 27 telescopes (plus one spare) and each one is an 82 foot dish with 8 receivers rucked inside. Each antenna weighs 230 tons and the dish moves on an altitude-azimuth mount, (a classic tripod mount): it tilts up and down and spins around.


The Y shape of the of the VLA is not for looks but for function. The wider the array is, the bigger its eye is and the more detail it can see out in space.

The telescopes are on rails and four times a year a Transporter picks up telescopes and hauls them one at a time farther down their track. Over the course of a year, the VLA lengthens each of its legs from two-thirds of a mile to 23 miles long.

This aerial view is from the VLA website.


The supercomputer of the VLA is housed in its own Faraday cage-equipped room. This computer can perform 10 peta operations every second – 10,000,000,000,000,000 per second. 

There is a 20 minute movie narrated by Jodie Foster and a self-guided walking tour around the area. One of the highlights of the walking tour is the Bracewell Radio Sundial. They have a handout on the sundial and how to read it, but understanding it was beyond our abilities. What we could see was that the shadow of the sundial told us it was 11:00 a.m. and our cell phones agreed with the sundial.


Notice both the sundial’s shadow and Jim’s shadow pointing at 11:00.


I was very impressed with our visit. I may not understand much about radio astronomy but I still find it fascinating. Jim really enjoyed this visit and he understood a lot more about radio waves than I did. So very glad we made this stop. Should be on everybody’s bucket list.



  1. Doug says "Wow I want to go there! But I never will because Toni doesn't want to". So true.

  2. Great post! I would love to see it and investigate it! Going to google it now :)

  3. It looks very impressive and interesting. I still don't understand exactly what they are looking for - radio waves/signals, but from what or from whom.

    I remember as a kid living near a park which had a sundial, and it always fascinated me. I'd love to have one in my yard, because I'm still fascinated by them.

  4. That was a great movie, have to get to see the VLA one of these days.

  5. I have not seen the movie but you've got my interest up. Will have to see it!! This is very interesting but over my head without further study but you've definitely got me interested!!

  6. Great timing I have the VLA as an option on the way to Albuquerque in a few weeks. Definitely looks like an awesome stop. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I was fascinated to find links to out home state of Minnesota there. It was a good visit even for this non-technical minded person. Toni, you should go; think how much Doug will owe you if you never tell him how much you enjoyed it. :)

  8. The VLA is so cool. I always wonder if meeting the aliens will be good for us or bad. Did you see the movie that had the book "To Serve Man"? It was a cookbook! I think it's from the 60s. Your new home is so cool. I LOVE that! Have a very good summer.

  9. What a wonderful interesting posting, we may just have to check that place out on out journey one of these years.

  10. We planned on checking out the VLA on one of our trips out to the Southwest but never made it. It looks like a cool place to visit and learn more about.

    Where are you heading this summer? Have fun wherever you go.

  11. Very interesting. I had no idea that place existed.

  12. This was on Paul's bucket list. Glad we went out of the way to see it. Pretty amazing for sure.

  13. Love visiting the Very Large Array

  14. The VLA is so cool. I always wonder if meeting the aliens will be good for us or bad.

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