The Very Large Array in New Mexico is one of those surreal places that looks like a dream instead of a real place. Recently, we were able to travel to New Mexico. We were driving down the freeway to visit Trinity, which is only open to visitors twice a year. My guy noticed a sign that said:
Very Large Array VLA – Take this Exit
As soon as we got to the hotel that night; he googled it and was extremely excited to learn that we were so close to an icon. No one had mentioned this very cool thing that was right by Trinity and we had been planning the trip for a year.
The VLA is run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It’s an internationally known observatory that has been around since the 1970’s. It has been featured in many movies and shows, including Contact, The Messenger and others. If it seems like there is more antennas in Contact, it’s because the filmmaker added more via photoshop.
The place itself was built on a former lake bed at an upper elevation in New Mexico. The antennas are about 95 feet tall, can be moved to form four primary formations, and incredibly huge to see in person.
This is the scale while you are standing next to them. Notice that you can also see the railroad tracks that they use to change the formations. They have specially designed vehicles that pick up the antennas and move them about.
The day that we visited; it was in the B position. The different antenna positions allow more flexibility in what they can view.
Since it is a radio telescope observatory; the data that is gathered is string of numbers. The numbers are then converted into usable data that astronomers use in their studies and papers.
Since we went on the same day that Trinity was opened, they had a large open house at the VLA. (They are about a two hour drive from each other.)
There were tours by astronomers, docents who explained the fancy sundial, and we got to go into the antenna control room. The operator explained that the telescopes are in operation 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.
We learned on the tour that anyone can make a proposal to have the VLA look at a specific item. It does need to meet some standards and I would suppose it would be helpful to have a basic knowledge of astronomy to make an effective pitch to the acceptance committee.
Here is a link to the process/forms that you need to fill out:
We also learned that astronomers also make poor tour guides. We were left behind by the tour guide in a maze of an office building. We walked through people’s offices, hallways and then ended up joining another tour, then blindly wandered outside. Turned a corner and our group was on a balcony overlooking the antennas. We caught up just in time to be sent out to a nearby antenna. Good Times.
Here is some more information about the location and budget friendly tours. I’d suggest packing snacks or a lunch because it is an isolated area. They request that you put all cellphones in airplane mode; because the cellphone activity messes with the telescopes. Plan for the tour to take a couple of hours. The tour guides can take you into the buildings and control room. The self guided tour does not have access to the buildings.