Today I am going to talk about a behind-the-scenes look at a very remarkable place, which is located in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Technically it’s located along Highway 60, between the tiny towns of Magdalena and Datil. The closest city is Socorro, where you will find plenty of good food and lots of hotels. Socorro is about 50 miles to the east of the Very Large Array.
It’s a mesmerizing place, to say the least. As you can see in the photo above, it’s an excellent place to star gaze (what you can’t see is the 13 degrees temperate when I captured this image), but also, well, universe gaze even. To prove that and to cut to the chase, let me give you a quick rundown about this place.
The Very Large Array is home to 27 telescopes, radio telescopes to be exact, with 72 possible stations that they can be set on. They “see” radio waves and collect electoral magnetic energy from space. If 24 of these guys are operating at the same time, then it’s running at full efficiency. That leaves three to provide a buffer for repairs, maintenance, moving, etc. This is also known as the “3 antenna rule.” The telescopes operate in four arrangements, known as A, B, C and D. “A” being the closest configuration, which you see above and spans a 1/2 mile diameter. “D” being the farthest arrangement at a 22-mile diameter. Once set in a configuration, they will stay like that for about four months. The transition to another arrangement takes two weeks. During that time you would have two arrangements combined, which is known as “hybrid formation.”
For a brief history lesson and some basic info, know that the VLA went online officially in 1980, 13 years after the original proposal for it was sent to the National Science Foundation. The cost was just north of 78 million dollars (based on 70’s currency). Today that cost would be about 300 million. Also know that the elevation here is 7,000 feet and it can get chilly, windy and snowy on a moment’s notice! And finally, a lot of you may recognize these telescopes. Many scenes from the movie Contact (Jodie Foster, 1997) were filmed in the area as well.
Now take a look at the photo below. I shot this while inside the control room where the magic happens. Once a month, on the first Saturday, you can take a tour and see this room. Sometimes you even get 5 minutes to pick an operator’s brain if you’re lucky! Below I highlight some of the interesting tidbits I learned on this behind the scenes tour.
All the data the comes through is processed in real time.
The VLA stays plenty busy 24/7/365. You can submit proposals to them to provide you with research data and feedback. If approved your data would be collected within a 4-6 hour block. This happens sometime while it’s in the configuration you specified (different configs each have their strong suits) and scheduled months later.
The operator pulls jobs as he sees fit and schedules them dynamically. Think of it as having a pile of work orders and you decide what order to knock the jobs out by the most efficient means and queue them up accordingly.
For every hour of research they allocate, there are five proposals.
Proposals are rated based on scientific research.
Once you receive your data, you have one year to utilize it how you see fit. After that, the info becomes public domain.
This means you can go through old research and perhaps find data that will help you with your project.
If your proposal is denied you can submit it again.
The North arm is always changed first, then entering hybrid formations until the new configuration is complete.
The two biggest issues the Very Large Array faces are wind and snow.
The submitter writes a script that runs on the system here to collect your data.
Each dish is 82 feet in diameter and weighs 230 tons!
Data is collected as close as the moon or as far as the edge of the universe.
For the last photo below you can see an offline antenna in the repair bay receiving it’s regularly scheduled maintenance. The size is massive as you can see. The noises they make while repositioning out in the field are some of the most haunting, yet beautiful sounds you will ever hear! The red machine on the left is used to move the antennas around the area. You can also see they travel on a double track system to support the massive weight of these things and help with turns. If you have 5 minutes and want to check out a video of the moving process, this short movie is worth a watch: Astronomer Rick Perley Transporter Tour.
So if you are ever in this area of New Mexico, I encourage you to stop by and check out the Very Large Array. If you are a fan of nightscapes and astrophotography visit my Dark Skies Portfolio. And if you need some help with the types of shots check out my Resources. Until next time!