Earlier this month, during my sojourn to Eagar, Arizona for a high school reunion, one of the things I really wanted to see was the Very Large Array, a radio telescope the feds built on the Plains of San Agustin. A huge, very flat, very dry, former lake bed in a remote part of New Mexico. My family left the area in 1971 and the facility started being built in 1973 and was operational a few years later.
I had read and seen photos of the giant antennas at the site. There are twenty eight of them and they are ninety feet tall. When I dropped out of the mountains to the plains where the VLA is located, the plains are so vast that the antennas looked like small mushrooms popping up on a large football field. But when you get close, the antennas are indeed gigantic.
There are twenty eight of these antennas spread out on three rails going out from a hub. The rails are in a Y configuration and and are about ten miles in length give or take. This allows the towers to be wide apart to focus in on details. You see the tires are all wired together with fiberoptics and are connected to a supercomputer. So it simulates up to a 22 mile wide telescope. I am not sure that I understand it all but fortunately they have a comprehensive web site with all sorts of videos, photos, and other things to help you make sense of it.
They have a very good, self guided, walking tour. They ask that you register in advance. It only costs a few dollars per person.
This is big science but it is retro big science. They first started making images there in 1980. They have upgraded the software, wiring, and computational capabilities so they keep the site current.
The VLA is in this remote site because of the flat terrain, high altitude, and low humidity. The mountains that ring the plains help keep out radio waves. Warning though, the site has not very good cell phone coverage and the facility has no street address so they suggest you download the map on google maps or may never get there. They actually don’t like cell phones and ask that you turn yours completely off when visiting. They said the cell phones can kind of fog the images. In fact everything you have that is wireless including blue tooth just turn off.
This is the admin building where the technical stuff and people are. They let you walk on the balcony but you cannot go inside.
This is the barn where they do maintenance and upgrades on the antennas.
This is the transporter that picks up and moves the antennas. They change their configuration of the towers every several months.
Check this link for a video narrated by Jodie Foster explaining the VLA. She does a lot better job than I can. She made a movie, Contact, that had her at the VLA communicating with aliens.