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The Very Large Array

Exploring the cosmos

In the movie Contact, Jodie Foster’s character, Dr. Eleanor Arroway, is captivated by a celestial light show. She remarks, “No words to describe it. Poetry! They should've sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful... I had no idea.” Foster portrays a scientist who discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make the first contact.

The VLA, or Very Large Array, is shown in the 1997 film. The VLA is not attempting “contact.” The large antennas near Soccoro are not sending communication but instead receiving data from the skies above.

The VLA, or Very Large Array, is just two hours away from Albuquerque and 50 miles west of Soccoro. This group of 27 satellite dishes is used together like one giant telescope. The VLA has been functioning in New Mexico since the site's formal dedication in 1980. There are actually  28 VLA antennas at the site, but one antennae is always serviced to allow continual usage and nonstop data. The isolated, quiet area near Socorro has little noise interference and is also at a high altitude. This makes it an ideal spot for receiving precise radio frequencies.

Many important discoveries have been made using New Mexico’s VLA data. These include the physics of gamma-ray bursts, jets of galaxies, and the discovery of water and ice on the planet Mercury.

The VLA has also been featured in movies like “Armageddon" and “Terminator Salvation” and in Bon Jovi’s video “Everyday.” Visitors are often surprised to see the impressive display of antennas scattered across the open desert. The large antennas look more like giant satellite dishes.

Corrina Feldman is the public information officer for the VLA, Very Long Baseline Array, and the new next-generation VLA. She says, “I have a passion for astronomy. I studied it as a hobby in college and I get to combine this thing that I love with communicating to my community about how awesome it is.” Feldman says, “There is a misconception that we are a big secret government military facility when, in fact, we are education and astronomy focused and open to the public.”

Today, cutting-edge scientists and astronomers visit and research the data from the synchronized antennas that show “invisible light. Each dish-shaped antenna is 94 feet tall and 82 feet in diameter. Every four months, the telescopes are moved into different configurations in order to get ideal angles to compile comprehensive data. Each “dish” has ten receivers within it that can receive data from a different band within a different megahertz range.

Feldman says, “VLA is unique in our structure and is still the premiere radio instrument in the world.” These high-tech antennas can see a form of light or radio frequency that is just outside the visible light spectrum. Using these radio frequencies helps produce images of the vast skies above. Feldman says, “The VLA is taking a photo of the sky and can take a really big picture to see the fine details better.” 24/7, these antennas are working in conjunction to photograph the skies.

The government and universities use the data collected from the VLA receivers. The VLA also has an open skies policy that allows anyone in the world to submit a proposal to use the telescope. “The best science is prioritized,” says Feldman. The site is known as an important scientific landmark.

Scientists, astronomers, and educators frequently use the radio technology gathered from the VLA. Feldman says, “Most students and postdocs are from New Mexico Tech and use it often.” Other universities like UNM can utilize the VLA’s radio instruments. People come from around the world to use New Mexico’s Very Large Array.

The VLA visitors’ center showcases an interactive video and displays photos of historical and scientific discoveries. Visitors can take a self-guided tour and visit the gift shop. Guests can also walk around the area and witness the widespread antennas with the whole array from a distance. Guests are only allowed to walk up close to the visitor antenna. The center also features a documentary voiced by actress Jodie Foster.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is now funding a new project to upgrade the VLA to the “Next-Generation VLA.” Feldman says, “We will be able to see things with such detail, and so far back in time, we’ll be able to see things that we’ve never seen before.” The hope is to answer the big scientific questions like how solar systems and planets are formed.

The “Next-generation VLA” will be in the same spot as the current array. The “ngVLA” will have ten times the sensitivity and resolution with 30 times longer baselines. The ng VLA is currently in the design and development phase, and the prototype is being built.

The goal is for the ngVLA to replace the current VLA. Feldman says, “It needs an upgrade, and the two will be integrated, and then slowly, the VLA will be phased out. There will be a new antenna design. Feldman says, “The new instrument will be a much larger instrument. The final product will have only one core array with arms that spiral out and 263 antennas (as opposed to the current 28 antennas). Operations are set to commence in 2039.”

The current array is in a “y” formation. Eventually, ngVLA will be one giant spiral that extends into Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. Feldman says, “It will be a much more dynamic telescope.” She is excited about the site's future. Feldman says, “With the construction of the next-gen VLA, New Mexico will have the flagship radio instrument in the world in its own backyard, like a radio version of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The clearest radio instruments avoid radio frequency interference. The middle of the New Mexico desert seems to be an ideal spot for current and future VLA’S.

For more details and directions to the VLA, visit public.nrao.edu

“There is a misconception that we are a big secret government military facility when, in fact, we are education and astronomy focused and open to the public.”

  • Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for aliens at the giant array in “Contact”