One of my favorite movies of all time is Contact. If you haven’t seen it, you should probably stop whatever you’re doing to watch it right now. Featured heavily in the movie is the Very Large Array in New Mexico, a series of giant radio telescopes used for astronomical observation. A normal telescope dish functions a bit like holding a funnel out in the rain – you can cover a larger area and still have everything funneled into a single spot so it can be useful. A radio telescope does this with radio waves, and the bigger the telescope the more you can “see” with it. Of course there are practical and physical limits to how big we can build a telescope dish. What’s cool is that if you make several dishes and spread them out, they act like one giant dish that is as big as the area between the individual dishes. That’s what is happening at the Very Large Array.
The VLA is very purposely out in the middle of nowhere. There are no pesky cities near the Plains of San Agustin to send out contaminating radio waves, and the high desert plateau is good for getting clear and consistent signals from space. I first saw the VLA from a distance, and thought I must have read the milage wrong before I left the gas station at a nearby town. I thought for sure I had several more miles to go. I did. The VLA has 27 antennas, each spanning 25 meters (82 feet) and weighing over 200 tons. I was still 20 miles away when I first saw the antennas. They are that huge, and (at times) that spread out.
I watched the video and took the walking tour, and was once again reminded how much I love space. I even learned a few fun facts relating to the Movie Contact, including that the canyon featured in the movie as being close to the VLA is Canyon de Chelly, where I had been just a day before. On the walking tour I took a few pictures, including another in my series of photos of tourists taking pictures. While my camera resolution isn’t the best, there are two people in the photo to the left, and both are taking a picture.
I have an extensive shot glass collection at home, and knew I’d be adding a few more pieces from my trip. I try to limit myself to either shot glasses that are especially interesting, or glasses from places neither I nor anyone I know may ever visit again. I felt the VLA fit one if not both of these qualifications and picked up a shot glass from the gift shop. I went to the bathroom and watched as it tumbled out of my purse and smashed into a millions pieces right below the decorative tile art. I went back into the gift shop to buy another, and the woman graciously offered to trade a new one for the broken glass.
There’s nothing terribly insightful to say about the VLA, though I’m surprised at how many people I’ve met a long the way who’ve never heard of it. I just can’t understand how anyone can get through life without being utterly fascinated by the cosmos.