Let me preface this entire blog post by saying I have a very limited understanding of anything more than mildly scientific.
I’ve driven by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRA) outside of Socorro many times. The NRAO is home of the Very Large Array (VLA) or a set of giant radio telescopes that in my mind were always aimed at space searching for alien life. That’s not exactly true and probably came more from the movie Contact than it did from any actual research on the VLA.
Anyway. After having a presentation canceled, my co-worked and I decided to treat ourselves to an afternoon of not working. Neither of us ever having actually been to see the VLA we headed down to check it out.
The VLA is about 50 miles outside of Socorro and it’s pretty much in the middle of a high desert with nothing else in sight. Turns out that was an intentional decision when construction started on the very large array in 1973. The giant satellites of the NRAO collect radio waves from space and these radio waves are very faint. And, when you are trying to collect faint radio waves from space, you need to be in a quiet and open area…hello New Mexico. The flat area outside of Socorro is also surrounded by mountains which act as nature’s buffer to ambient sound.
The sounds are so faint and the telescopes so sensitive that you’ll be asked to put all electronics in airplane mode and then power them off while you are here. You are allowed to briefly power things on to take photos (while in airplane mode).
The visitor center has several interesting displays that will help people without science minded brains (like me) to understand the basics of what goes on at the VLA. In a very non-scientific nutshell: the VLA uses the giant radio telescopes to collect radio waves from space. A giant supercomputer then compiles all of the data from all of the different telescopes into composite photos that allow us to see what space looks like. It really is pretty amazing and the visitor center has several incredible photos that came from the data that’s been collected. In addition to providing insight as to what space looks like, astronomers use this data to track asteroids, watch exploding stars and investigate black holes.
That’s where my understanding ends. There is a documentary that plays in the visitor center as well as some on-demand videos in which some very science-y guys attempt to explain what goes on at the Observatory to people like me. No one answered my two burning questions: how much do these beasts cost?! My guess is somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And, has anyone ever broken one?
The best part of our visit was the walking tour. (Guided tours are available – check the website). You will have an opportunity to get outdoors and get close to one of the VLA’s radio telescopes. These 230 ton monsters can be moved on special loading trucks – provided that the winds are no more than 20 mph. Employees use jacks to lift the dishes up off of the bases. They are then lowered onto these specialized trucks that can move the radio telescopes along 40 miles of railroad tracks on the NRAO property. The telescopes travel at no more than 5 mph on the tracks to their new location. This allows the VLA to adjust the arrangement of the satellites to suit their needs. You can check out the current configuration of the VLA here: https://public.nrao.edu/vla-configurations/.