The just announced discovery of the sound of black holes colliding a billion light years away has us, once again, in awe of scientists (and engineers and the other people who made this happen). Just like we felt on our visit a bit ago to The Very Large Array in New Mexico- oh if civilization had to depend on the meager thoughts and ideas that come out of our kitty brains, we’d be in trouble. Thank goodness for smart people!
They Array was most familiar to us (in retrospect) as the set for a chunk of the Jodie Foster (based on Carl Sagan’s book) movie, Contact. (I credit my ever handy Lonely Planet USA for even knowing it existed and that we were near it.)
The Array is comprised of 27 giant antennas detecting radio waves from space, spread out for miles (hence the name) over a high (no radio interference), but flat expanse southwest of Albuquerque.
I think I have got this right – our eyes, binoculars and telescopes detect light on the visible spectrum. But these babies, radio antennas, detect light not visible, way on the other end of the light spectrum. All of the antennas are synced together so their data can be combined to form higher resolution images – that we can see! (example below, right) of objects in space. The dishes are moved every few months into one of four configurations – depending on what exactly they are hoping to detect. But, don’t trust me: go to the source for a more thorough explanation about how they work.
We arrived late in the day (as is our wont) and the personable and welcoming staffer in the gift shop let us linger, shopping, and answering all of our questions. Though she herself was not an expert on the science, she had a really neat personal connection to the Array, which she shared. Her parents ram a motel in the small town of Magdalena – about 25 miles away – where all of the workers building the Array in the 70s lived. The town was so small, there weren’t many places to eat, so her family, in order to keep her hotel business bustling, agreed to provide meals as well. So for four years straight (during the length of the construction) she served breakfast and dinner in three shifts to the workers.
The visitors center has an excellent movie, narrated by Jodie Foster, in which we also learned that all of the dishes have recently been retrofitted with fiber optic cable. In fact, according to the VLA, they have “2557 miles of fiber in the ground, and an additional 3 miles of fiber per antenna in each antenna.”
There is a thoughtfully presented self-guided walking tour, outside, with stations where you can learn a bit as you go, culminating in a chance to go right up to one of the dishes and pose for a picture that tries to convey their size (82 feet in diameter).
They do a guided tour the first Saturday of every month.
Because they were in the midst of switching from one configuration to another (which they do quite carefully on transporters which glide and turn as needed, gracefully as ballerinas, on double train tracks (seen very clearly on the picture at the very top) we got to see a transporter (orange below) poised for action.
We split our visit over two days – spending the night at the nearby BLM Datil Well Campground. We were kicking ourselves for not buying Contact, because with no cell service at all, we resorted to watching one of the DVDs in our small collection – Bridget Jones Diary – which has nothing to do with space exploration, and is just the kind of mindless fodder our kitty brains enjoy as a break from so much thinking and learning. But there is a lovely scene in the snow at the end, which portended what we woke up to – by far the most snow we’ve ever been in with the Airstream.
Luckily the road out of Datil was not too steep, and we went back to the Array to finish up our tour; it cooperated with lovely pictures, despite the very very cold temps and wind.
So while the folks at the Array may not be getting the credit this news cycle, their press release section can give you a sense of their amazing discoveries. My favorite? The discovery of water ice on Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. We did manage, once we got back to the land of cell service, to stream Contact (fair warning: Matthew McConaughey is in it too) and, though it felt a little dated, we enjoyed it very much. Even with (or perhaps because of) all the news lately, if you still aren’t quite feeling the excitement about how space exploration can impact humans, its closing scenes will take you there.