A Brief Visit to the Very Large Array (VLA)
It may be that you’ve arrived here as a fan of the 1996 movie ‘Contact’ starring Jodie Foster, a dramatization of celebrity planetary scientist Carl Sagan’s SETI novel. The movie had some scenes shot at the VLA and it’s famous because of it, including that iconic shot of Jodie listening to the signal on headphones with a VLA dish as a backdrop.
I suspect the VLA staff are a bit over Contact by now. As they point out, the VLA is not suited to real-life SETI work, though in contradiction it seems that it actually has been. They for sure never listen on headphones, though (except maybe Spotify).
Still, the movie used the VLA as a backdrop because it’s an atmospheric place and an interesting one to visit in its own right. Here I take a quick look at how to find it and what you might see there. You’ll probably just look at the pictures, though, ‘cos like I said it’s a most photogenic spot.
Building of the VLA was started in 1972 and complete by 1980. Most of its work has been in general astrophysics, with all kinds of studies on quasars, masers, radio galaxies and black holes.
Despite their disavowal of Contact’s themes (see excerpt from a visitor centre sign below), the VLA seems to be getting used for SETI after all. Read this article by Seth Shostak for more info’.
Like so many observatories the VLA isn’t exactly somewhere you’ll stumble across whilst heading somewhere else. It’s in central New Mexico, in the middle of a vast and lonely desert valley that was a lake bed in the Pleistocene.
The nearest town by road is Socorro 50 miles to the east on I-25 between Albuquerque and Las Cruces. After that it’s probably Grants on I-40 west a mere 112 miles away. The map will show you nearer names like Pie Town but you’ll be lucky to find gas and food there (there is a pie shop, but it was closed for me).
What to see
Layby off Highway 60
The array consists of twenty-eight 25-meter radio telescope dishes that weigh 200 tons each and move on rail tracks. They’re spread in three long (as in 13 miles each) arms across the plain.
When the walking tour is open you can walk up to one and there’s another near to the visitor centre road. But the easy way if you’re in a hurry is to just stop at a layby off Highway 60 where it crosses the north arm just west of the signposted turn-off to the VC. You’ll get great photos there and can walk reasonably close to a dish before meeting the no trespassing sign.
Tip: the dishes are usually a long way apart, so take a telephoto lens if you want shots with more than just one dish and lots of desert.
Gnomon for the radio sundial is great for selfies!
The visitor centre is a rather small and half-hearted effort, it’s also a surprisingly long way (4 miles) off the highway. The most interesting stuff is outside – the array itself, the maintenance hangar and a walking tour to one of the main dishes.
There’s also a kind of radio telescope garden with an old dish and silver spheres on graffitied columns. The latter turn out to be much more interesting than just an odd way of taking a selfie – they comprise a sundial that appropriately also has markers for a couple of the strongest and first-discovered celestial radio sources (Cygnus and Cassiopea A)!
If you’re still not satisfied on the Jodie and SETI front, there’s a pin-board about the filming inside and a notice that has this to say:
“Visitors to the VLA often ask if we have made contact with the “Little green men”. Others see the surplus military vehicles and wonder if we have a Department of Defence mission.
As for aliens, NRAO is funded by the U.S. Government, and our government does not believe in spending money on looking for men from Mars. That work is best left to SETI Inc, a privately funded group. SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. In fact, the VLA is ill-suited for SETI work because the “beam” is too narrow; that is, both the VLA and VLBA can only listen to a very small piece of the sky at one time. As well, neither the VLA or VLBA can search rapidly over broad bands of radio frequencies, a feature desirable for SETI work. Sorry, Jodie.
All that said, looking for life-forming molecules and studying the formation an evolution of planets, particularly habitable planets, is a high priority for U.S. science. Some of the scientists who use the VLA and VLBA are studying these areas.
The VLA does not have a defence mission either. Sometimes it may seem we are in the middle of a war when the New Mexico Air National Guard is conducting aerial dog fights right overhead, but our mission is purely scientific. We listen to cosmic sources like stars and galaxies with an occasional project to listen to a space probe like Voyager thrown in. Neither the VLA nor VLBA antennas include any transmitting equipment.”
But what about those no trespassing signs in the exact same font they stencil on cluster bombs? Too much X Files in that lonely desert motel again last night.
Also, perplexingly, the VLA does in fact seem to be searching for signals from extra-galactic civilisations on behalf of the SETI Institute, sorry whoever wrote the sign – see above. Fate loves irony.
Like I said, look at the pics. Waffling on about aperture synthesis interferometry doesn’t convey the slightly spooky atmosphere of this vast science instrument built in the middle of nowhere. That said, the science and history are intriguing too.
The VLA may not warrant a trip to New Mexico on its own, but if you’re doing the tour at SpacePort America, or maybe at White Sands spying on missile launches (I mean enjoying the gypsum dunes at the national monument), it’s a fun detour... and not just because of Jodie and Carl (and now Seth too).
Go for the X Files atmosphere but look beyond it at the science! The fact that SETI research is apparently now happening here adds to the ambience.