One of the top destinations and observatories when visiting New Mexico is the Very Large Array Radio Telescope, more commonly referred to as the VLA. The radio telescope consists of an array of 27 large radio antennas, or dishes, which are moved around on railroad tracks to form configurations that allow astronomers to point to distant objects. Because radio waves are so large, the antenna dishes are very large, each one measuring 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. The dishes are so large, they can easily be navigated by foot--provided they aren't turned on and they're relatively flat.
The data gathered from the antennas are combined to create a high-resolution image of what's out there in space. When the 27 antennas are combined, they essentially make a telescope that would be 36km (22 miles) in diameter. A large telescope like that would, of course, create a highly sensitive instrument. The VLA approximates the sensitivity of a dish that is 130 meters (422 feet).
The VLA is located about 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico on the Plains of San Agustin. The Bosque del Apache and annual Festival of Cranes are located east of Socorro. The satellite dishes are laid out on three tracks that resemble an upside down Y shape. The way the satellites are arranged produces images of the radio sky. Depending on what astronomers are looking at and where they are observing, the dishes can be close together or spread out. Astronomers use four common configurations, A, B, C, and D, and submit proposals to have time on the telescope for their studies. The VLA completes a cycle of the four configurations every 16 months.
Projects can last anywhere from a 1/2 hour to several weeks. The VLA is well suited for taking quick snapshots of its target sources, so many astronomers study strong, isolated objects.
The VLA became well known after the movie Contact. The story starred Jodie Foster as a radio astronomer who makes contact with an alien life form. Although the movie incorrectly depicted Foster listening to radio waves with earphones, the large antennas became an iconic image associated with the search for extraterrestrial life.
Visiting the VLA
The VLA Visitor Center and the site are open daily from 8:30 a.m. to sunset. The gift shop is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Guided tours take place the first Saturday of the month, at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Reservations are not required. Show up at the VLA Visitor Center 15 minutes prior to the tour time. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors 65+, and ages 17 and under are free. The tours are 45 minutes and go to behind-the-scenes places at the VLA. Staff and VLA volunteers provide the tours and answer questions.
Visitors on First Saturdays can also take part in a free evening of night sky viewing at the Etscorn Observatory on the New Mexico Tech campus. New Mexico Tech is located in Socorro.
First Saturdays in April and October are special Open House events. These tours last about an hour and take visitors through the VLA operations. The tour is led by staff who are available for questions, and there are hands-on astronomy activities.
Getting to the VLA is about a two-hour drive south of Albuquerque. Take I-25 south to Socorro, and then take Route 60 west to the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array Visitor Center. There will be well-marked signs to follow.
The Visitor Center features exhibits on radio astronomy and the VLA telescope. Start your visit with the Jodie Foster film and then explore the exhibits. A silent video demonstrates how the large satellite dishes are moved into their configurations. There is also a film narrated by Jodie Foster in the center. Outside, a path takes visitors on a self-guided walking tour that ends up at the base of one of the giant dish antennas. The walking tour takes visitors past a radio sundial, a whisper dish gallery and a radio astronomy gallery. Visitors will end up at the base of a working antenna, then go to the observation deck for a view of the array.
The VLA can sometimes close due to weather. Be sure to call to ensure they are open, (505) 835-7410.
Find out more about visiting the VLA.