The Very Large (and very cold) Array

The crack of dawn cracked especially hard this morning in Socorro, New Mexico. It was our day to go to the Very Large Array, a group of 27 radio telescopes spread across a mesa to the west of Socorro. I was up before 5:00, packing lenses and cameras into our rental car, and getting ready to roll.

My son Patrick and I have been on a four-day photo adventure, starting with three days at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and ending today with our visit to the Array.

Located at about 7,000 feet altitude, the array is sited to be about as far from anything electrical or electronic as is possible on the North American continent. While visiting, the folks at the Array ask you to turn your cell phones off, not to use microwave ovens, and please do not use any radio transmitters. Any of these will be picked up by the array’s sensitive antennas, and will have to be filtered out by the scientists who analyze the data from the antennas.

This is a view down one arm of the Y-shaped array of 27 radiotelescopes at the VLA site in New Mexico. Each antenna weighs 234 tons, and each is 95 feet in diameter. The antennas are pointed by controllers in the adjacent operations building, using instructions from scientists from around the world.

There is no cell service in the valley, and we turned off our phones in response. There was no problem with the microwave oven.

The 27 antennas are located on a Y-shaped set of tracks that extends for miles across the Plains of San Agustin, west of Magdalena, and east of Datil, and about 1,000 feet higher than Socorro, the nearest “big” town to the east. It takes about an hour to reach the Array from Socorro.

This is the same row of radiotelescopes, seen from the east. Data from the telescopes is transmitted by fiber-optics to a center in Socorro, New Mexico, then on to the participating research institutions who contribute to the Array’s operation.

The site is run by Associated Universities, Inc., and funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Astrophysicists, astronomers, space scientists, and their employers pay to get access to time on the antennas. What the antennas collect is invisible radio waves. The scientists can ask for the antennas to be pointed in any direction, and for a variety of wavelengths of energy to be collected.

The array is very agile. It moves silently, and it moves quickly. As we approached the site this morning at sunrise, the antennas were pointing toward us. By the time we parked the car at the Visitors’ Center, the antennas had been repositioned in nearly the opposite direction.

From this vantage point, all three axes of the Array can be seen. The antennas in the left distance are on the (approximately) north-facing line, while the others are 120 degrees off-axis to that line. The position of the antennas can be changed with a railroad engine sized lifter, called the High Plains Lifter.

Though we never actually saw any of them move, we know they moved at least twice more in the two hours we were on the site.

A strong wind was blowing this morning at the VLA. That added considerable pain to the 23-degree ambient temperature. Patrick and I went on the walking tour of the Array, and we were nearly exhausted by the weather by the time we rounded the operations building.

There was ice on the ground, frost on the highway, and ice on my balaclava where I was breathing through the fabric. It was mighty, mighty cold.

The photos we collected, and the video that Patrick took, are lovely. Visiting the VLA was on my lifetime list of accomplishments, and I am very happy I made the trek to see it.

It’s back to work tomorrow, two states and many hours away. I will post more photos, and some links to Patrick’s videos in the next few days.


About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and was a Guest Professor at Hochschule München from September, 2021 to September, 2022. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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