It had already been a long drive when I first caught sight of The Very Large Array, an assembly of enormous radio telescopes in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.
As a space geek, I’d been beyond excited to see this facility, more precisely located fifty miles west of Socorro, but I have to admit that my first reaction was disappointment. At first glance, I thought they looked sort of small, not unlike the little cable dishes I see attached to balconies in Manhattan. I thought there’d be more of them, I thought they’d look more impressive.
What I didn’t realize was exactly how much the New Mexico landscape was playing with my sense of size of proportion. My first glimpse only caught a few of the 27 telescopes, which are indeed enormous — 82 feet in diameter, 230 tons each. The dishes are networked together, so they function as one giant dish. And they’re on train tracks so they can change configuration — at its widest spread, that would be 22 miles.
The array’s greatest claim to fame was in the movie Contact — it was where Jodi Foster first “heard” sounds of alien life. But here in reality, the VLA isn’t used for seeking evidence of alien life. (A caustic sign in the visitor center explaining this also said, “sorry Jodi”. I’m sure she’s all broken up about it.) It’s about visualizing radio signals, “seeing” UV energy and X-Rays, which is how astronomers study and map what’s happening in outer space. Or rather, what’s happened: by the time this energy reaches earth, it’s evidence of events long since past. Like, for example, explosions that occurred at the very beginning of the universe.
While that doesn’t have quite the cachet as listening for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, listening to the universe’s beginnings strikes my non-scientific mind as almost as strange and magical.
All photos by Alison Stein Wellner.