The Very Large Array and Messages from Space… A Bike Trek Special

The radio telescopes of the Very Large Array are situated on the eastern edge of the Continental Divide, 60 miles east of Socorro, New Mexico.

The radio telescopes of the Very Large Array are situated on the eastern edge of the Continental Divide, 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

 

Perhaps we’ve never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there’s no sign of intelligent life. -Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

July is just around the corner. And that means the Mekemson household will soon be watching Independence Day. Again. Peggy has her favorites. Some movies, like Willow, I swear we have watched 30 times. And I don’t know if I can count how many times August Rush, the movie about the little boy who finds his parents through music, has appeared on our TV screen. Each viewing guarantees Peggy will get out her Martin and strum it.

Peggy snuggles up to a sundial at the VLA, counting down the hours until she can watch "Independence Day" again.

Peggy snuggles up to a sundial at the VLA, counting down the weeks until she can watch “Independence Day” again.

A close up of the sundial featuring both of us in the mirror. Sort of a selfie...

A close up of the sundial featuring both of us in the mirror… and an alien. Sort of a selfie.

But Independence Day has a special twist. July 5th is Peggy’s Birthday and the movie kicks off her Birthday Week, during which “whatever Peggy wants, Peggy gets.” (Remember Whatever Lola Wants?) If it appears she is a little spoiled, well yes. But Peggy has earned it— and she spoils me, too.

You’ve probably seen Independence Day. Nasty aliens invade the world with the intent of wiping out humanity and sucking up all of the earth’s goodies. The movie starts with a scientist in a lab whiling away the wee hours of the morning practicing his golf game by sinking putts in a glass. Suddenly the computer screen that monitors messages from outer space goes bonkers. And everything changes.

Here’s the point of my little detour into the world of Science Fiction: The scientist is working at the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico, which is the subject of today’s post. An even more famous movie including the VLA is in the Jodie Foster flick, Contact, based on the book written by Carl Sagan where humanity first meets up with aliens. SETI, the search for extra terrestrial intelligence, is a subject that has fired the imagination of much of the world’s population, a fact that Hollywood has taken to heart, and the bank.

The scientists at VLA have mixed feelings about the movie depiction of their giant radio telescopes being used in the search for aliens. On the one hand, movies increase public awareness about the facility, and this awareness can be translated into increased funding. On the other hand, the VLA is used for hard science. Instead of searching for little green men, it is used for unlocking the secrets of quasars, pulsars, black holes, the sun, the Milky Way Galaxy, and numerous other astronomical phenomena including the very beginning of the Universe. Not bad, even if they aren’t talking to ET on the side.

Besides, as one astrophysicist at the facility told Peggy and me, if an alien civilization has mastered the difficulties involved in traveling/communicating over the vastness of time and space, they would be to us like we are to ants. Why bother with checking in or stopping for a visit. The tongue-in-cheek quote at the top from the astronomer and popularizer of science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, reflects this perspective.

In my last post, I passed by VLA as I zipped down New Mexico 60 from Pie Town and the Continental Divide heading east on my bike. I vowed I would be back, which was a vow Peggy and I kept as we retraced my route through the area. We were lucky. We arrived on the first Sunday in April, which just happened to be VLA’s annual open house. The red carpet was rolled out.

Peggy and I lucked out in our April visit to VLA. It was the facilities annual open house. People were taken on tours by scientists who use the radio telescopes for probing the Universe.

Peggy and I lucked out in our April visit to VLA. People were taken on tours by scientists who use the radio telescopes for probing the Universe. A visitors center and self-guided walking tour are available for people who come at other times. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Scientists were everywhere— answering questions, leading tours and being friendly. I suspect it was a command performance required by the higher-ups. Most scientists prefer to be locked away in their labs discovering things. A young post-doc from India, who is using the VLA to probe back several billion years to the beginning of time, took Peggy, me and several others on a tour of the facility.

But first I chatted with Diego Montoya, the Mayor of Magdalena, a town just down the road from the VLA. Diego wasn’t at the event in his official role, however, he was there because he had a speaking part as a third grader in Contact. As I pointed out, the VLA recognizes the importance of publicity to its well-being. Magdalena recognizes the importance of VLA as a tourist draw.

Diego Montoya

Diego Montoya looking very much like a mayor of a Western town.

When I rode my bike by the VLA in 1989, the 27 huge radio telescopes were spread out for over 22 miles of the San Augustin Plains. When we visited a couple of months ago, it was under a mile. Given that each antenna weighs 230 tons and comes with a dish that is 82 feet in diameter, moving them is something of a challenge, to say the least. How is it accomplished? Slowly and carefully (grin). A railroad track system shaped in the form of a Y has been designed for the effort. Each arm of the Y is 13 miles long. Special trains with the power to lift and move the telescopes have been designed for the job.

Each of the radio telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico is massive, weighing

Each of the radio telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico is massive, weighing in at 230 tons.

The dish is 82 feet in diameter.

The dish is 82 feet in diameter. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

This sculpture at the VLA represents the Y of the track configuration.

This sculpture at the VLA represents the Y of the track configuration.

This photo shows the rails that the radio telescopes travel on. Once the telescope arrives at it preset positions it is bolted down and plugged in to the power and fiber optic cable system.

This photo shows the rails that the radio telescopes travel on. Once the telescope arrives at its preset position, it is bolted down and plugged in to the power and fiber optic cable system. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Four different locations are utilized on the tracks to provide for different types of observations with the telescopes, which rotate through the locations every 16 months. Since the 27 telescopes work together as one unit, they are the equivalent of a telescope with a 22-mile diameter when extended to their farthest point! That’s like the mother of all telescopes.

The telescopes can do their job because they are extremely sensitive to radio waves, the longest waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. And how sensitive do they have to be? Consider this: Cosmic radio waves are a billion, billion, million times weaker than a cell phone signal. (Pretty hard to call home with that ET. Mom would need really big ears.) This sensitivity creates special problems. A cell phone used on the premises sounds like a very large scream (VLS?). Even the remotes for car doors create spikes on the VLA’s measuring equipment. One reason for choosing the San Augustin Plains is because of its remoteness from all things civilized. I can attest to that. The other is that it is so darn flat, which I quickly discovered bicycling across it. My floating down the Rockies came to a dramatic halt, at least for a dozen or so miles.

Messages received by the radio telescopes are sent at light speeds over fiber optic cables to the central processing unit where one of the world’s fastest computers processes the data at 16 quadrillion calculations per second— the equivalent of every person on earth (all six billion of us), doing one calculation per second on a calculator for a month, nonstop. The data is then packaged up and sent out to scientists from all over the world. Scientists compete for time on the VLA by submitting proposals. Their slots may be for an hour or days. After a year, they agree they will release their findings to the public. In terms of scientific data, the VLA has paid its way many times over.

The massive computer room is closed to the public but we did tour the monitoring room. The Array is monitored 24/7 by scientists in case of any problems. This chart shows spikes caused by incoming radio waves.

The massive computer room is closed to the public but we did tour the monitoring room. The Array is monitored 24/7 by scientists in case of any problems. This chart shows data being received from the radio telescopes. I wonder what an extraterrestrial message would look like!

The message from outer space to my readers is that if you get anywhere near the VLA, include it on your itinerary. Even if you only stare at the telescopes, it is a fascinating place, and there is a good visitors center chock full of info. Who knows, maybe even ET will call while you are there. Two final photos:

Radio Telescopes and repair facility at VLA in New Mexico

The large facility in the back is used for repair and maintenance on the radio telescopes.

We took this shot as we were leaving.

I took this shot as we were leaving.

THE NEXT BLOG: Once again you will join Peggy and me as we continue to retrace my bike route. We will stop off at the Trinity site where the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded, visit Smokey the Bear’s birthplace and grave, and end up in Lincoln County where six guns once ruled and Billy the Kid roamed— all of that before we drop into Roswell and its weird world of UFOs.

45 comments on “The Very Large Array and Messages from Space… A Bike Trek Special

  1. Curt, this is a wonderful post with great photos. I love the film Contact and read so much of Carl Sagan as young so this place would kind of like a Mecca for me! Wow! How lucky to arrive on an open day and I can well imagine this was planned by far away corporate as a great idea and the scientists muttering about lost study time! Also I had to laugh at the photo of the mayor – I paused before scrolling down, imagining what he could look like and I was not disappointed. Just perfect!

    • Thanks, Annika. I like the Mecca idea. I think anyone with interest in the mysteries of the universe would find the VLA a fascinating place to visit. Diego Montoya seemed just right for Mayor of Magdalena. I wish I would have had more time to talk with him but our tour was just about to leave. I suspect he would have been worth a blog on his own. –Curt

  2. What a fascinating place. I’ve always thought that the scientists who devote their time to these projects also think of the stuff going on around them as depressing and discouraging. It must leave them to despair when a presidential candidate even denies the existence of the drought in the western states or people casting votes on national budgets can’t or won’t acknowledge the science behind anything having to do with the climate.

    Nice blog post, Curt. As always. Love the shadows in the “selfie photo” in the sundial. BTW, sometimes it seems like I am the only person who has not seen that movie.

    • Scientific American is one of my favorite magazines, Bruce. It frequently editorializes on the anti-science movement in America. How people can enjoy all of the benefits of our scientific age and yet somehow deny the science behind them baffles me to no end. We are entering a scary future. It is critical that people people understand both the good— and bad— aspects of science and where it is taking us, not deny its existence. Thanks for your comments, Bruce. Always thoughtful. –Curt

  3. It is like something out of outer space. I believe in science. Here the government is cutting back on funding science. Voodoo economics is gaining ground here too. We are waiting for fibre optic computer cable to be connected but a mistake has been made and it will only run to street corners. Between the street corner and homes will be through the odl copper wire. Can you believe it?

    • Oh what I wouldn’t give for fiber optics instead of my satellite connection. On the other hand, it allows me to live out in the woods… My son-in-law, Clay, is now overseeing Googles efforts to wire Charlotte, North Carolina with fiber optics. As usual, the US is always behind when it comes to catching up on the technological advances it helps to create. As for VLA, I agree. It definitely has the feeling of a ski-fi movie to it. –Curt

  4. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson I also sometimes look around and wonder if there’s intelligent life on earth. Or if termites, with their elaborate mounds and social structure think they’re intelligent.

    • Speaking of termites, Dave. I managed to step into a fire ant nest in Mississippi a couple of months ago. It’s amazing how fast one can shed his pants. I have nothing but respect for the nasty little buggers. –Curt

      • Or much sooner, Dave. I figure if we can make it through the next million years we are in it for the long haul. 🙂 On the other hand, cockroaches were running around before the big lizards. –Curt

    • Thanks, Kelly. The VLA is definitely science being performed on a large stage in a magnificent, albeit remote, setting. I am amazed at where we are today in terms of science, and can only wonder at where we are going. –Curt

  5. Good stuff Curt, and a great explanation of just how the array works. I particularly like the photo with the rail cars used as scale to see how big the VLA really is. I suspect that not many people get to see this array, so you’ve done the scientific community a good deed, and maybe set that dashing devil Montoya up for his next movie role. ~James

    • Thanks, James. And you are right. Its remote location, which is necessary for its functioning, also makes it difficult to get to. Still, for people driving up and down I-25, it is a mere skip and a hop out of their way. I am a big fan of New Mexico in terms of what it has to offer: culture, history, geography, wilderness, Native American culture (both historical and today)— and science. –Curt

  6. I’ve never read any of the books, or seen any of the movies, but I’m utterly fascinated by the science. Your tales of the VLA — especially moving things around — reminds me of the arrival of our shuttle here in Houston. It came on a barge, and had to have palm trees cut down before it could be moved to the Johnson Space Center, but, hey! Whatever it takes!

    As for weird associations: your mention of a very large a-rray brought back memories of the introduction to “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” at Woodstock. As you may remember, it was dedicated to “Ronald Ray-Gun — Zap!”

    • Big ray guns! The Star War Initiative might come a bit closer to that. My son-in-law’s dad played a central role on the project. Scary stuff. But the science of reaching billions of miles across the universe and billions of years back in time, I agree with you Linda on it being utterly fascinating. VLA has moving the radio telescopes around down to a science. The dishes can also be moved and focused so they are all pointed at the same source. We watched one as it moved. –Curt

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