Eyes to the Heavens – The Very Large Array, NM
“Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.” Socrates
Socrates certainly had a way with words and he was a smart, old cookie too. The earth is but a youngster in the grand scheme of things, and only through the study of the heavens can we truly probe the past. In the deep recesses of the universe lie clues from over 10 billion years ago, and those pieces of knowledge are just reaching us today on the wings of light.
Oh yeah, Astronomy is super-nerdy-cool stuff and the Very Large Array takes you right into the middle of it. I’ve wanted to visit this place ever since I saw the movie “Contact“, and I can tell you the real thing is even sweeter than the film. The Array sits in the plains of San Agustin ~50 miles West of Socorro, NM. Follow the long, lonely road over the hills and into the wild and you’ll just about be here. It’s the perfect spot for inter-galactic radio-astronomy -> remote, quiet and flat. Sprawled across this deserted high-desert basin are 27 massive 230-ton radio antennas, each 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter arranged in an enormous Y-shape. It’s a stunning view when you first see it, and you can’t help but be swept away by the colossal scope of it all.
The scientific beauty of the array is that the antennas act as one. By combining data from many, you create a radio image with the same sensitivity as a single dish 130 meters (422 feet) in diameter (and that, my friends, would be a honking great big monster of a dish). The antennas can also be zoomed in and out, like a great big camera lens, by transporting them along the 21 km (13 mile) arms of the Y, thus giving pictures with different levels of resolution.
And if that wasn’t cool enough, there’s more. The antennas at the VLA are just one arm of the even more massive VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array) which spans 5,000 miles from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. This monstrous combo produces the best resolution of any telescope on earth or in space, and a whole new meaning to the term “supersize-me”.
A visit to NRAO VLA will take a cool hour and, if you’re lucky, you might even meet one or two other folks out there. This is the place where the world ends and science begins, taking you off to black holes, far-away galaxies and the beginnings of time. Super-cool-nerdy stuff indeed!