So… bucket list location. You might not recognize this place by name, but I’m sure if your old enough and I mention Jodi Foster, space movie and big dishes aimed at the sky you know where we are. If your even older or more geeky, you would recognize it from Carl Sagan’s documentary Cosmos, a personal voyage.
The VLA or Very Long Array is a massive assemblage of 27 matching radio telescopes. Each dish is 25m or 82ft in diameter and weighs a staggering 209 ton. Now here’s where things get exciting! The whole collection can be re-arranged in a “Y” pattern. That means each of the dishes can be picked up and carried on a custom train track from a close distance of 600m from center to as far away as 21km from center. That means some of dishes can be over 45km away from each other! It’s quite the rush to stand under one of these dishes and look around at the identical clones.
While the size and numbers pertaining to the VLA are easy enough to understand, the science is filled with misconceptions and misunderstanding. Firstly, in contradiction to the movie Contact, the VLA is not connected to SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. While intelligent life could accidently be discovered, the focus of the VLA is to look at astronomical objects such as galaxies, black holes, quasars, pulsars and supernovas to name a few. Another misunderstanding is that the VLA is a radio telescope and it is listening for radio communications. It’s not. At least not how some imagine, tuning into an interstellar radio station with music that’s out of this world.
Visible light isn’t the only way to observe the universe. We understand that bats can use ultrasound to decipher their surroundings. Radio waves are an extension of the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation and augment our understanding of our surroundings and what we see with visible light.
The last interesting fact about the VLA is that it’s really the EVLA or Expanded Very Large Array. Back in 2012 it was upgraded from the original technology used to build in in the 1970’s. The newer, upgraded VLA is 10 times more sensitive and capable of several other improvements that I don’t fully understand such as frequency accessibility and spectral capacity.
Our students will hopefully grasp a bit of our passion about this location and I know Stacie teaches this content to her students as well. I know that if our stop here can spark one students passion, then it was well worth it.