NRAO-VLA

NRAO-VLA

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array is a mere 46 miles to the west of Socorro along U.S. Highway 60.  After two decent evenings in the refuge, I had planned to spend my third evening in the area at the VLA.  When I emerged from this room after editing and a shower, I was disappointed to see that the entire sky was covered in a blanket of high, thick overcast.  One lesson I have learned is to never alter my photo plans based on the weather at my current location.  I knew it was likely that the area of the VLA would likely have the same cloud cover, but I still wanted to see the array.  I had wanted to see it for decades, and being this close, I couldn’t pass it up.  Besides, the crappy light here would not lead to worthwhile wildlife photos. 

The drive up into the high desert scrub brush area was really quite lovely.  I repeatedly noted scenes I would love to have photographed, given that the sun was out.  And the angle of the sun would have been perfect for great shots.  I still managed to stop for a few scenes that demanded my attention. 

The VLA is an impressive feature on the landscape.  Twenty-seven massive satellite dishes, measuring 82 feet in diameter, forming a Y with nine dishes on each vector.  I could explain what the VLA does, how it works, but why not just quote from the VLA web site:  “The VLA is an interferometer; this means that it operates by multiplying the data from each pair of telescopes together to form interference patterns. The structure of those interference patterns, and how they change with time as the earth rotates, reflect the structure of radio sources on the sky: we can take these patterns and use a mathematical technique called the Fourier transform to make maps.”  As they note at the Visitor Center, when they filmed the pivotal scenes from “Contact” at the VLA, the movie makers took a little creative license to make the magic happen – the VLA is not for listening to space noise.  

One of the things I learned about the array that really surprised me is that the dishes not only rotate, but can be moved out along their axis from the control center along a railing.  Depending on the experiment being run, the dishes will need to be closer to each other or farther apart.  They can be as condensed as all within 0.4 miles on their axis from the compound, or spread out as far as 13 miles away.  It’s hard to judge distances, but it looked like they were about a quarter of a mile apart from each other when I was there. 

Guided tours are rarely given at the VLA, so when you go there, you are on your own with the limited walking tour, centered around the building compounds at the heart of the array.  On my way around, I happened upon several jackrabbits, doing jackrabbit things.  One, who noticed that I was about to take a picture of him just when I had him in focus, decided to leap into the air and bound off into the shrub brush for cover. 

2 Responses to “NRAO-VLA”

  1. Cheryl Lee Lunde Says:

    Carl, your pictures are amazing. I
    t’s just like stuff I see in books.
    I can’t believe you ended up in Alaska!!
    And to just think I knew you back when you were just an RA in Minnesota!!

  2. admin Says:

    Wow, Cheryl, great to hear from you! How did you find me? Yes, been here in Alaska for ten years. If you keep watching, you will see some books with my name on them in the next five years, guarantee it! If you have a Facebook page, look for me there and connect.

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