The Very Large Array

The Very Large Array

The Very Large Array has, at the same time, an incredibly descriptive and totally unhelpful name. The array in question is a Y-shaped network of radio telescopes that sit in the New Mexican high desert. They’re turned to the sky, listening to the sounds of worlds light years away from earth.

Unless you’re New Mexican or move in space science circles, the Very Large Array (frequently called the VLA) is likely foreign to you except for the vague feeling that you’ve seen it somewhere. It’s got a surprisingly large pop culture presence. Carl Sagan drove it into the public eye when he included it in Cosmos. The VLA is highly recognizable – movies like Contact, Independence Day, and Terminator Salvation have been shot here. Heck, Bon Jovi even shot a music video at the VLA.

Jodie Foster's character from the film Contact listens to a headset at the Very Large Array.
Jodie Foster’s astronomer from Contact listening for sounds of alien life at the Very Large Array. Although the VLA isn’t used for SETI projects, it is certainly capable of picking up alien signals buzzing around the universe.

Even if you’re not super into space or Jodie Foster movies the VLA is still worth visiting. Its hugeness and remoteness mean it’s awe-inspiring even without context. While it takes some driving to get to, it’s open from 8:30 – sunset every day for self-guided tours, making it an accessible day trip. I made the trip from Albuquerque one very cold afternoon in January. (That’s another thing to be aware of: not only is the VLA remote, it’s cold in winter. The woman in the gift shop told me it had dropped to -2 F with windchill the day before.)

The gift shop has shorter hours than the grounds, so if you’re interested in getting post cards or asking questions, come before 4pm. There’s a small theater where a short documentary plays on demand, which I’d recommend you watch to get acquainted with what you’re about to see. There’s also a small museum to wander through. I got in for free, but I can’t remember if it’s because I had a student ID or because I attended UNM.

After that it’s out into the cold! (Or heat, depending on when you go, I guess.) There’s a short walking tour that should probably take about half an hour. It took me about ten minutes because – have I mentioned this yet? – it was so cold. The tour takes you past a small dish, a few interpretive labels, and then right to the base of the closest working dish. From there you can walk up onto the balcony of one of the science buildings for a fantastic view of one of the VLA’s branches.

The closest dish. It moved when I was there, which was spectacular.

I was very much by myself this trip. Apart from the lady in the gift shop, I only spotted two other visitors and one scientist.

After you finish the walking portion of your tour you can drive a short distance to see one of the dishes in the massive service shed. Once it’s all fixed up they’ll roll it out onto a special set of train tracks and drive it very, very slowly to its new home.

If you’d like to visit the Very Large Array, check out Roadside America’s entry. Make sure to peek at the official website for up to date information about visiting hours and other logistical concerns.

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