The Very Large Array (VLA) is an NRAO-operated radio telescope facility located approximately 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. The array operates on the principle that data collected from each of the 27 independent dish antennas can be combined in such a way that the array acts like a single, much larger radio telescope.
I had a chance to see the VLA for the first time last year while traveling through New Mexico.
Upon arriving at the VLA, a visitor center welcomed us with some exhibits about research being done at the facility a short video, a self-guided tour, and a gift shop where you can buy space-themed souvenirs and Astronaut Ice Cream.
A few of the exhibits were particularly interesting to me given my previous experience with microwave RF circuits. One was a cross-section of a 3.6cm feedhorn and receiver setup as found on the dishes (view the full size poster more details).
The highlight of the tour, of course, is the opportunity to get up close to an operating dish. After a short hike from the visitors center, I found myself in the shadow of one of the VLA’s massive white dish antennas. Every minute or two, the dish moved slightly to stay pointed at the same point in the sky despite Earth’s rotation. Standing under the dish, listening to the roar of the refrigeration units that keep the receivers cool, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have pursued a career in radio astronomy!
Our last stop on the tour was the service yard. Each dish is rotated out of service for maintenance on a regular basis. This is where the dishes are maintained in the safety of a huge repair hangar.
Was my visit to the VLA worth a 100 mile detour across the New Mexico desert? Absolutely!
Want to see more? There are lots more pictures of the VLA in my Flickr photostream.