We were driving from Albuquerque headed south on I-25 with no particular stop in mind. Passing through Socorro, we saw a sign that pointed to the Exit onto US 60 West to the “VLA” (Very Large Array)—the largest radio-astronomy telescope in the world. As part of her graduate program, my wife (Sandy) had studied about this telescope when it was being built. So we turned right and 40 miles later found it. There was plenty of room to park our coach and they had a nice visitor’s center that included a self-tour.
As you approach the area, you first see several “things” spread out in this huge valley but, getting closer, they become recognizable as a bunch of satellite dishes—it makes you think of a satellite dish “salvage yard.”
This telescope (officially called the “Very Large Array”) does not look like a normal telescope and it acts like an antenna. The VLA is comprised of 27 individual satellite dishes that—if you could look down from the sky and see all of them—are laid out in a “Y” formation. Each leg of the “Y” meets at a center point (where you and the visitor center are located). The key to this particular layout is that the dishes combine their ability to capture radio signals. So, whatever total area these dishes can be moved to creates, in effect, one giant single antenna.
Fine, so far. But remember, this is the biggest “array” in the world. The “Y” is actually made of rails—like a train track—and each leg of these rails goes out from the center a distance of 13 miles! They just move the satellite dishes on the rails, toward or away from the center (where you are located), to whatever distance they want, to create whatever size antenna they want up to a maximum of a 13-mile radius or 26-mile diameter circle. It’s big. That’s why it is the largest radio-astronomy telescope in the world.
The self-guided walking tour allows you to go out and stand under one of these satellite dishes. There, you discover that these things are HUGE! Each dish is 82-feet (25 meters) in diameter. Notice the white arrow in the picture. It’s pointing at Sandy. Now you can see how large each dish really is.
From Socorro, New Mexico, go west on US 60 for about 40–50 miles (you will pass through the tiny town of Magdalena). The dishes are located on the “Plains of San Agustin.” This area obviously has minimal population so there are no services available to speak of. Have plenty of fuel to get back.
On a side note, there were hundreds of antelope in the grassy areas close to the road and near the dishes. We stopped and watched them play and feed.
For more information, go to http://www.vla.nrao.edu/