Telescopes allow us to see out into space and back into time. And radio telescopes allow us to see further in both dimensions than other telescopes. I have long appreciated the vision that the VLA affords us, however standing physically present next to these radio dish giants, feeling like Jodie Foster in Contact, was truly thrilling!
The VLA (Very Large Array) is the largest radio telescope on Earth. Its 27 antennas are arranged in a Y shaped array that can be adjusted from 1 mile to 24 miles across depending upon the resolution and the amount of detail that astronomers want to see. This VLA collects radio waves, which unlike visible and other wavelengths, are not absorbed buy dust clouds or moisture in our atmosphere, which allows us to study portions of the cosmos that are otherwise invisible. This spectacular telescope provides us with the ability to study everything from Black Holes, located at the center of galaxies millions of light years away, to mapping ice on our nearby planet Mercury.
The VLA is located at 7000 feet of elevation on the isolated, radio-silent, mountain-rimmed plains of St. Augustin about fifty miles west Socorro New Mexico. This isolation is required in order to minimize the interference of earth-generated radio signals, which can overwhelm the very weak radio wavelength signals that arrive from billions of miles away from across our own galaxy, The Milky Way, and even from other galaxies beyond. The VLA folks are so serious about unwanted radio signals, that they ask all visitors to even turn off their cell phones to minimize human interference in their collection of these precious radio signals.
The 27 VLA telescope array operates 24 hours today all year long. The processing center, located on site, requires one of the fastest supercomputers on the planet to handle the billions of gigabits of data that constantly pours in from the 27 fiber-optic linked telescope dishes. If you ever get anywhere near Socorro New Mexico, make an effort to take a side trip and visit the VLA, it's just plain spectacular! And believe me, you don't have to be a physisist or an astronomer to understand and appreciate just how wonderful this project is!