|We saw this on the drive up to the Visitor Center.
As we pulled up to the VLA Visitor Center, one of the first signs we saw said:
"Please have all electronic devices (cell phones, tablets, or anything else with an "On/Off" switch) in airplane mode and powered off. If you plan to use your electronic device to take photographs, you may briefly turn them on (while in airplane mode) to take pictures, and then power the device off again once you've done so. Please turn off all WiFi and Bluetooth devices including GPS, back-up cameras, wireless headphones, fitbits, etc. Use of drones is strictly prohibited!"So much for the idea of contacting Security at the Inn of the Mountain Gods while we're here.
The reason the VLA is on my bucket list may be the same as many other people's reasons for wanting to visit: They saw the movie "Contact" with Jodie Foster in which she worked at the VLA. Other movies filmed here include: 2010 Odyssey; Armageddon; Independence Day; Terminator: Salvation; Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Time to enjoy learning about the telescope(s). And there's a lot to learn.(Information about the VLA is taken from multiple articles we picked up at the Visitor Center and the VLA Walking Tour brochure.)
First, the VLA is a powerful telescope that observes the Universe, night and day. The 27 dish-shaped antennas at this location's array are tuned to a kind of light that eyes cannot see--radio waves.
Radio waves reveal previously unseen activities of stars, galaxies, and planets and map the chemical workings of the gas and dust clouds that create them. Optical telescopes cannot see into these places, because those same clouds block their view.
Unhindered, radio waves can travel for billions of years across the vastness of space. They provide the VLA with data to help them construct a timeline of the Universe--from its ancient past to its possible future. The special telescopes are tuned to detect a full range of once-invisible light types across the cosmos:
- Weak radio waves
- High-energy Gamma-rays
VLA History: In the early 1960s, a "very large array" of radio antennas was planned that would function as one giant telescope. The United States Congress authorized this "VLA" project in 1972, and site work began on the Plains of San Augustine in New Mexico two years later. In 1975, the first VLA antenna was assembled on site, inside the Antenna Assembly Building.
With only two antennas, the VLA began observing the radio skies in 1976. The VLA became a full-time telescope in 1977 when six antennas were operational. By January 1981, all 27 antennas of the new array (plus its spare 28th) were completed.
In 2012, after decades of planning and retrofitting, the VLA was transformed by a new suite of receivers, a supercomputer, and the replacement of its old wiring with nearly 3,000 miles of fiber optics. It was rededicated in honor of the father of radio astronomy, Karl G. Jansky.
VLA Antenna Specs: Each of the 27 antennas in the array weighs over 230 tons, is 82 feet across, and over 90 feet high! Each dish is made from smooth aluminum panels fitted carefully onto a steel basket.
Motorized drives steer these 100-ton dishes around, dip them up and down, and keep them pointed exactly on the cosmic radio source for several hours at a time to collect enough radio waves from each object they observe.
The radio waves are funneled onto supersensitive, cryogenically cooled receivers. The faint, natural radio waves travel through distant space from objects such as galaxies, black holes, and baby stars.
The views from each of the 27 active antennas in the array are sent down fiber optic cables to a supercomputer. The supercomputer mathematically merges the 27 views, uniting the array into a single, powerful telescope.
The distances between the antennas along the "Y"-shaped rail tracks (more on this later) can be changed which will change the level of detail the VLA can see. Each of its Y-shaped arms is 13 miles long! At its widest antenna separation, the merged observations of the VLA have the qualities of a giant telescope with an eye 22 miles across.
Our visit: Once in the Visitor Center, we went to the gift shop to pay our admission (and shop). I paid for everything since Susan didn't have her credit cards. (This was payback for the day I forgot my purse at home and Susan paid for my lunch at Macaroni Grill. LOL. Are we getting forgetful?)
We wanted to see the movie in the Visitor Center about the VLA which is narrated by Jodie Foster. That was our logical first choice of what to do here. In it, they show how an antenna is moved. There are railroad tracks laid out in a Y pattern on the plains. An antenna is moved by a special train car that attaches to the antenna and moves it along the tracks at 5 mph. Once the antenna is in place, the puller can be rotated to slide sideways onto the track up to the piers that will hold the antenna. The movie is worth seeing.
Next, we read the exhibits in the Visitor Center, and from there we headed out the back door to start our VLA Walking Tour. First stop: solar radio telescope.
|Solar Radio Telescope
Here is how the solar radio telescope works: This giant horn funnels radio light on to devices that turn it into electrical signals. The signals are detected with the voltmeter at the bottom of the scope.
Just to the north of the Solar Radio Telescope is the Bracewell Radio Sundial. The instructions on how the sundial work went over my head, although I do have a four-page handout explaining it.
|The Bracewell Radio Sundial
|Just to prove the sundial is, indeed, over my head!
|And my feet are firmly planted on the ground.
|Bracewell Radio Sundial
|You try to figure it out.
Susan and I played around with another exhibit: whisper dishes. Two satellite dishes were placed about 50' apart facing each other. If you whisper into the small tube in the middle of the dish, the person at the other dish can hear you loud and clear. This demonstrates how sound waves are collected and amplified.
As I mentioned in the specs section above, the VLA antenna is 82 feet across. That is the length of two large school buses parked end-to-end.
|Two large school buses parked end-to-end
show the width of the antenna.
Susan was way ahead of me on the walking tour by now. I hurried to catch up but never did. I was most interested in getting up close and personal to an antenna.
|Getting closer to a VLA antenna
|VLA antenna showing base on piers
|Railroad delivery system, piers, and the VLA
|VLA antennas on one of the tracks
On our way back to Ruidoso, we decided to stop at Valley of Fires Visitor Center. Imagine our amazement and surprise driving through the high desert in the middle-of-nowhere New Mexico when we saw an old, huge lava flow. We spent a about 15 minutes there at the overlook. The Visitor Center was closed by the time we arrived.
|It was too late to walk the Nature Trail
and we were very tired anyway.
|Close up of the pahoehoe lava.
|Malpais Nature Trail from the overlook
|Malpais Nature Trail from the overlook
|Beautiful cactus in bloom
As we drove back to La Quinta in the fading light, we saw two cow elk at the edge of Hwy. 70. We're glad they weren't in the road!
The day was long and very interesting. We're glad it had a happy outcome.
Tomorrow, Susan and I will be marking the Cloudcroft Rails to Trails Volksmarch. Thanks for reading.