Photos: Nerd Talk Field Trip to the Very Large Array

They're the giant radio telescopes seen in movies like 'Contact'

March 4, 2019

by Gregr


Nerd Talk went just beyond Socorro, New Mexico, to see the barren wasteland home to freezing wind and radio space telescopes. The Very Large Array (VLA) is a collection of 27 giant dishes on crazy swiveling mounts in the middle of freaking nowhere. It sits in a natural ring of mountains to shield it from waves generated by humans and surveys the skies - probably really looking for aliens - for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

Look at those tiny humans compared to this beast's massive 25m height (about 82 feet tall). It's like standing behind me at a Sounders FC match!

The VLA built 28 telescopes - 27 are in use at all times barring malfunctions while one gets maintenance in a big yellow barn. Work can still continue when as many as a couple aren't functioning thanks to an onsite super-computer filling in the gaps. The dishes all live on one of three arms - 9 per arm.

Imagine one big telescope dish - or better yet, a tasty pie fresh from the oven. Now imagine cutting it into three equal pieces because you have enough self-control to not eat a whole pie, but you're still not very responsible. It's the same with the VLA where the telescopes are placed along the cut lines (only without the gooey cherry/apple/chocolate filling). These telescopes work in tandem to virtually create one big dish and use the aforementioned super-computer to generate a bigger picture. 

The VLA is built on double train tracks along each arm so that the dishes can be moved despite weighing 230 tons each. The tracks also allow the arrangement of the telescopes to be reconfigured for different space studies.

This monster of a machine, called Hein's Trein, lifts up the massive telescope then slowly takes it where it needs to go down the array.

Hein Trein for moving the telescopes around

Imagine trying to pick up this thing:

This mobility allows the VLA to be adjusted for a variety of configurations. When they're at their closest, the telescopes are all within a mile. At their farthest - almost 23 miles across ("A" configuration). When I went, they were the second farthest apart in the "B" configuration - 7 miles across. For photography, I wish it had been in "C" or "D" with them clustered a bit closer to one another.

They first opened this thing up in 1980, then in the last decade upgraded the facility to take it from analog to digital. Doubt anyone will be like "but it sounded better when it was analog - you can really all the pops and crackles." The VLA is listening for the faintest waves to hit the earth from near and far.

These waves are so minimal that in the time it's been running, if you added up the entirety of the radio energy that VLA has detected over the almost 40 years it would be less than the energy produced by one single snowflake hitting the ground! 

After reading the final book, "Death's End", of the Rememberence of Earth's Past triology by Liu Cixin, I just hope we keep monitoring the galaxy or solar system without receiving any "hey neighbor..." messages. Read the book if you wanna know why. 

In the final moments of taking some photos from one of only a couple places we can access as mortal pedestrians, I turned around to find that the dishes were all pointing in a different direction. How sneaky, dishes. Patiently, I looked a little longer to discover they were all cycling in near unison before settling back in for some more science. 

#NerdTalk field trip to the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Aliens... -@heygregr

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Tours are limited and it's quite a drive, but should you find yourself in New Mexico, I would highly recommend taking some time at this spot and eating as much fry bread in near by towns as possible. Try a Navajo taco, too.

Full info about Very Large Array.