Friday, September 9, 2011

The Very Large Array (VLA)

This post is part of a series called the Great New Mexican Adventure, where I detail the things to see and do in New Mexico and determine if they are worth the time, effort, and money.

The Very Large Array is a system of dish telescopes that act as one single telescope using the principle of interferometry. In an interesting twist, not only do they all act in unison for one telescope, but combined they are also a part of another interferometric system known as the Very Long Baseline Array, which the Arecibo telescope is also a part of.

Getting to the VLA is quite an easy trip, take I-25 south until you reach Socorro and then take US 60 West until you see giant dishes on the side of the road. It is a 2 hour drive from ABQ, which would make this the most boring day trip ever. Luckily I was on my way home from the Lightning Field and this trip required just pulling over for a pit stop.

This particular day, the VLA was stretched out in a particularly long pattern. Each telescope is movable and the array has several different configurations available to meet the needs of the scientists. Sometimes the telescopes are packed in tight, while other times the telescopes are spread out over many miles. The reason for this is because the distance between the two farthest dishes (known as the baseline) is similar to the diameter of the interferometric telescope (bigger baselines yield less resolution though).

As we approached we could see telescopes for many miles in each direction all pointing toward the NE section of the sky collecting data (it doesn't have to be dark to do radio astronomy!). And I took pictures of the telescopes way off in the distance (there is a slideshow below and I encourage you to look at the full resolution images to see how far away I was when I first spotted the array).

Once you arrive there is a little museum that talks about radio astronomy and what we've learned about the universe because of it. There is a movie that plays that talks about the telescopes (that I didn't watch) and you can go on a walking tour to get up close to one dish, view the control room, and walk around the main campus.

The museum isn't that great and could clearly use some upgrading. There is a gift shop too that has some merchandise (Stef bought a coffee mug) but I didn't find much of it appealing. The walking tour is great though. There are plaques explain the physics of parabolic dishes and as I mentioned above you can walk right up to a dish just to see how big it really is (and it is big!). When you get to the control room you are given a (relatively) bird's eye view of the array and even just the addition 30ft can give you a whole new perspective on the impressive achievements of the telescopes.

Despite how poorly I portrayed the experience, I had a good time at the VLA, but I could be corrupt because I used to be very interested in astronomy, spent a summer at the Arecibo telescope, and enjoy the occasional night of stargazing. I did spend a considerable amount of time taking pictures, just staring at the vastness of the configuration, reminiscing of my time in radio astronomy, and talking to Stef about the work she did at the site (she helped setup the Long Wavelength Array which is a system of arrays of antennas around NM, with one site at the VLA, designed to study low energy signals from space). If you are ever driving to southern NM for a trip or to the Lightning Field, then it is definitely worth a stop to the VLA, because after all science is fun!

Location: Plains of San Agustin about 50 miles west of Socorro
Website: VLA supported by NRAO
Free Admission
Rating: Awesome

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