Get Outta Town: See the machines that probe the secrets of the cosmos

by Nick Gonzales

Head 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, and you’ll find one of the best locations on the planet to listen to outer space. Less “E.T.” and more “Contact” (in fact, it was a filming location), the Very Large Array is a collection of 27 radio antennas on the Plains of San Agustin.

The dish of each antenna is about 82 feet in diameter and weighs about 230 tons. By combining data from the antennas, scientists can achieve the resolution of an antenna 22 miles wide and the sensitivity of a dish 422 feet in diameter, none of which exist … at least on this planet. At dawn and dusk, the dishes cast mile-long shadows across the plains.

This is all to say that when it comes to radio astronomy, the array is a perfect place to probe the mysteries of the cosmos. While Hollywood would have you believe the dishes are used for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – a real project which scans the universe for signs and messages from alien civilization – the observatory is actually used to study quasars, pulsars, supernovae, black holes, and dark energy. All those fun space oddities you heard about in astronomy class.

Visitors to the array can take a walking tour from the visitor center to the base of one of the dishes. (You wouldn’t want to visit all of them – the dishes are mounted on tracks so that they can be repositioned, up to 13 miles away from the center.) Guided tours take visitors behind the scenes on the first and third Saturday of every month. The visitor center contains exhibits about radio astronomy, several short videos, and a 23-minute documentary narrated by Jodie Foster.

After the tour on the first Saturday, visitors are free, with guided telescope viewing of the night sky at the Etscorn Observatory at the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.

The site and the visitor center are open from 8:30 a.m. to sunset daily. The gift shop closes at 4 p.m. For more information, visit https://public.nrao.edu/visit/very-large-array/.

Nick Gonzales

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