On The Plains Of San Agustin, New Mexico
There's weird stuff in the desert. Imagine driving hours away from the city, down an endless road to the middle of nowhere and coming across 27 enormous satellite dishes that are 82 feet wide and weighing 100 tons each. Oh yeah, and they can all turn and look at you too. What the what?
If you've seen the movie, Contact, you may recognize this place as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, more commonly known as the VLA. The VLA is so remote that it doesn't even have an address other than The Plains Of San Agustin.
To find this desert science machine, take HWY 60 west from Socorro for about an hour and then follow the signs. For more specific directions, enter these coordinates into a GPS 34 04'43.497N, 107 37'05.819W or visit their website here. 34 04'43.4907 37'05
What is the VLA?
The Very Large Array is a group of 27 radio antenna that work together, collectively creating a telescope that is up to 22 miles across. (Now that's some Dish Network!) Each of the 27 dishes gathers natural radio waves traveling through space from distant objects such as black holes, galaxies and baby stars.
What does the VLA do?
In a nutshell, the Very Large Array keeps an eye on space. The radio telescopes at the VLA see a part of the light spectrum, known as radio waves, that are invisible to the human eye.
Radio waves reveal previously concealed activities of stars, galaxies and planets, they also map the chemical workings of the gas and dust clouds that create them. Optical telescopes cannot see into these places because these same clouds block their view but incredibly detailed images can be created by combining the data from both radio and optical telescopes.
Unhindered, radio waves can travel billions of years across the vastness of space, providing the VLA with data critical to constructing a timeline of the Universe.
Visiting the VLA
The VLA is open daily from 8:30am until sunset. There is a museum, informative films, several photos of Jodie Foster, a gift shop and a self guided walking tour that includes some cool stuff. That being said, if you really want to see what the VLA is all about, I highly recommend taking the guided tour. Twice a month, on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays, the VLA offers guided tours led by their staff scientists. Admission is $6 and it is well worth it.
I've been out to visit the VLA twice. The first time was several years ago and I just showed up and did not go on the tour. It was ok, but the array was in one of it's more spread out configurations with only the one antenna on the walking tour being close by. The second time, Johnpaul and I planned our visit so we could attend the First Saturday Guided Tour and it was so much better! The director of the VLA was there along with a couple other scientists, they provided an in-depth explanation of how the VLA works and we even got to visit the control room to see the whole thing in action. For the photographers out there, the control room has an observation deck where you can get some photos that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get. Additionally, the array was in a much tighter configuration this time which made the photos even better.
The Very Large Array is very large indeed!
It can be somewhat difficult to show the scale of just how large these radio telescopes really are. To put it into perspective, the dish itself is 82 feet across which is about the same size as two large school buses sitting end-to-end. With regard to height, if there were people standing around the base of the dish pictured above, they would be about half as tall as the concrete footings that the dish sits on. Look carefully at the stair case at the bottom to get an estimate of height.
The Whisper Dishes
My favorite thing on the self guided walking tour is the whisper dishes. There were a lot of people standing around them so I didn't get any photos but they are the coolest thing! The Whisper Dishes are a small scale demonstration model of how the VLA works. They are two dish shaped concrete installations and to demonstrate how they work requires at least two people. One person stands at each dish and the person at the first dish whispers very quietly while the person at the 2nd dish (that is about 50 feet away) can hear the otherwise inaudible whispers clear as day as if the other person were whispering directly in their ear. So the moral of this story is... don't be talkin' smack around the whisper dishes!
Spend some time in Magdalena, New Mexico
For those traveling west from Socorro, HWY 60 goes through Magdalena on the way to the VLA. Magdalena is a small settlement that is about 30% ghost town. For photographers visiting from out of state, Magdalena is a worth while stop. I live close enough to go back out there on any given weekend so sometime soon Johnpaul and I are going to return to Magdalena and make a day of it. So much cool stuff to see there!
This trip to the VLA was on November 2, 2019. All photos were shot with a Canon Powershot Elph 360 and edited with Fotor.
I am DeAnna Vincent, fine art and portrait photographer in Los Lunas, New Mexico. These are the photos from my everyday adventures.