On our way to Albuquerque Kate noticed that our route would take us an hour away from the NRAO VLA. This is the radio telescope made famous in the movie Contact. It was early in the day so we decided to make the detour. The drive took us over some mountains into the valley where the installation is and you can see the radio dishes from very far off. Shortly after entering the mountains we lost any cell phone signal as the VLA sits in a giant radio dead zone.
This is a very busy, working laboratory and tourism is light so it felt almost like trespassing when we got there. You have to turn off your cell phone and any other electronics that broadcast radio when you get close to the facility because any radiation affects their observations.
The array consists of 27 very large antennas on a Y shaped rail bed. The day we visited, the array was it it’s most tight grouping which means they were viewing a large area. At its widest configuration (36km across) it can view distant objects at a very high resolution.
We watched a short film about how it works and how the antennas are positioned using a huge crawler that picks them up and drives them to their new positions. Then we took the self guided walking tour. This took us right up to one of the antennas and it was impressive.
This was by far the nerdiest stop we’ve made and it was worth the time to see. Contact is one of my favorite films and it was cool to see the VLA in person.