Making Contact with the Very Large Array, New Mexico

My mind was still processing the four days I had experienced participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March at the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range with 7,199 others when I spied the large sign for the Very Large Array (VLA) traveling north on I-25 in southern New Mexico.   I almost rammed the unsuspecting car to my right as I made desperate haste to the exit.   Like many others, I’d first learned of this incredible place watching the movie, Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster but had thought little of it since.

Once off of the highway, I realized that to get there from the town of Socorro, I’d have to drive another 50 miles each way!   Geez, I was so wasted from the 26.2 mile run/walk in the hot New Mexico desert the day before that to add this detour would make for a very, very long day, indeed.   Yet, there are times in life, I’ve found, that cool stuff simply can’t always wait until it is convenient.

On the way to the VLA with a sign “just to remind”…

It was about 8:15 in the morning as the early rays raked over the arid landscape and though my wife and I live in a similarly desolate landscape farther north in Colorado, I could already tell that this area was far more remote.   Like many places in the southwest in the US, the two lane road through these grasslands was lined with tired and forgotten structures that had once been filled with life.

Over the years of traveling around this world, I’ve come to appreciate and savor the beauty that exists in all types of landscapes.   Here, the prairie grasses were still a light brown waiting to green up in the later spring, providing a calming and visually pleasing offset to the dark brown rock formations of the faraway mountains ringing this altiplano.  The two lane road undulated up and down and disappeared through the heat of the day as I began to feel a bit vulnerable.  It almost felt as though I were driving on a vast sea, the oncoming stripes in the center of the road lulling me into a sort of trance.

Through the last town then, and the final stretch lay before me.   I’d be making the left turn south in about 20 minutes but way before that, the magnificent array of large antennae were just making their first appearance.   My God, what an unexpected bonus to this four day expedition and the anticipation grew as I neared the site.

VLA array, tightly grouped during my visit. As seen from the approaching road.

Nothing else around.  “No Service” on my cell phone.  It all appeared like a desert mirage… had I wandered into the Twilight Zone?

And like all things in wide open spaces in big sky country, scale and proportion are always underestimated.   The seemingly tiny array would still require another ten minutes of driving before the final turn into the complex.

But as I’ve come to learn, some of the most interesting and worthwhile sites require time and distance to get to.  So programmed are we in the modern age to demand things immediately, the ones who make the commitment are typically rewarded with small to non-existent crowds and magnificent treasures to behold.   This was one of them.

Tracks that allow the dishes to be moved up to 13 miles out from the center.

At a bit after nine in the morning, on this perfectly still day, there was only one other visitor; a fellow Bataan marcher as it turned out!   We gave each other our space after exchanging pleasantries as we wandered out onto the site under the massive antennae.   Each stands 90 feet tall with dishes measuring 80 feet wide.   And as the Gods smiled down upon us, they instructed the scientist to reposition the 27 dishes to a new angle … and the white giants all simultaneously moved.  I’d never seen anything like this.

The two of us stood motionless as little children would, in perfect awe – thoughts of the genius minds who conceived of this and those whose determination pushed such a grand project forward to completion back in the late 1970s.

Stacks of railroad ties used in constructing and maintaining the 40+ miles of tracks.

The Y-shaped array of the train tracks allows the scientists and researchers to reposition the dishes out 13 miles from the center, providing varying degrees of resolution on the radio spectrum; fascinating.    And, in concert with the Hubble Telescope’s capacity for visual and infrared imagery, the combined effect is for deep space imagery that it truly beyond comprehension for this tiny mind.

Photo from video referenced, below.
One of the dishes is always being serviced. This image was taken from a video, referenced in the link below.

I bade my fellow Bataan marcher a farewell and drove the 50 miles back to the highway, looking back periodically at the mirage in the desert.   How interesting to pause for a time to reflect on this incredible mission.   Someday, I suspect, we shall discover something out there that will significantly alter the way we see our endless Universe; placing our petty, man-made squabbles in their proper little box, God Willing…

I swore that I heard Jodie’s voice somewhere.

[Click on:  Very Large Array for a brilliantly-produced video tour.]