On the road: Annular eclipse trip, May 21, 2012

Posted by Rich Talcott
on Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The tightly packed center of the Very Large Array stands out on the Plains of San Agustin. // All photos by Evelyn Talcott
One thing you learn when visiting Arizona and New Mexico: It takes a long time to get from one place to another. Fortunately, Monday’s long drive was worth it. The destination for our MWT Associates, Inc., tour was the Karl Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), recently renamed for one of the pioneers of radio astronomy. The array has been doing cutting-edge research for more than 30 years, but it may be best-known as the observatory that first heard signals from E.T. in the movie Contact.

The array’s 27 antennas rose like sentinels from the Plains of San Agustin as we drove eastward along U.S. Highway 60 in New Mexico. Each antenna dish measures 82 feet (25 meters) across, rises 94 feet (29m) high, and weighs 230 tons. Transporters move the antennas along railroad tracks to various configurations — tightly packed for wide-field views and spread out for highest-resolution observations. The array is currently in an intermediate arrangement, which afforded us some great photo opportunities.

The VLA’s nerve center controls the operations of the 27 dishes in the array.
After a brief movie describing the VLA and radio astronomy in general, Ruth gave us a guided tour of the facilities. The highlight was a visit to the control room, where Mike answered all our questions about how the array operates. The observation running at the time was downloading 8.5 gigabytes of data each hour. Later, while we were standing under one of the dishes, the array shifted to a fresh target, and we received a close-up view of the massive antenna slewing to its new position.

Although the VLA represented our only astronomical stop of the day, we continued to explore the artistic creations of the Native Americans who inhabit the region. Tour members had plenty of opportunities to invigorate the economy, and many of us took advantage. We hope the locals appreciated our purchases as much as we enjoyed their hospitality.

Up tomorrow: our final day in the Southwest offers visits to the Sky Village of Acoma and Old Town Albuquerque.

Related blogs:
On the road: Annular eclipse trip, May 20, 2012
On the road: Annular eclipse trip, May 19, 2012
On the road: Annular eclipse trip, May 18, 2012

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