The Very Large Array. Welcome to my Sci-Fi Movie! Here are my impressions of the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, and why this has to be one of the coolest day trips from Albuquerque ever!
The immersion into another space and time begins on Highway 60 from Socorro, New Mexico. This razor straight two lane highway, the only paved access to the Very Large Array, feels like a ride into the Twilight Zone. As you approach the site, an overpowering sense of isolation begins to creep over you. The horizon flattens out and becomes more barren. There are none of the businesses, restaurants, or curio shops that normally surround a tourist destination. Cell phone service begins to fade and finally dies as you approach the VLA. You feel like you’re leaving civilization behind, and in some ways, that is true.
There is a sense of flatness and overwhelming scale to the vast natural plateau that hosts the Very Large Array, and an ever-present sense of isolation and quiet that tugs at your senses. The slightest mechanical creak from the imposing antennas immediately grabs your attention. The small signs warning visitors to stay on marked trails to avoid encountering rattlesnakes heightens your sense of alertness. Any movement startles you. It’s all just a bit intimidating. But that adds immensely to the fun of being here. The immense technology and barren terrain surrounding you beckons every memory and emotion of your favorite sci-fi movies. Is this cool, or what?
What Is the Very Large Array?
The Very Large Array is a series of radio telescopes that measure celestial light in the (invisible to the naked eye) radio spectrum. Because radio waves are so large — about 100,000 times longer than visible light waves — astronomers need colossal telescopes to collect them.
By linking 27 single dishes together to make them work like a single very large telescope (called an interferometer), the Very large Array has the radio light gathering capacity of a single radio telescope the size of two and a half football fields. The science behind the Very Large Array (VLA) is real, but it all feels and looks like so much science fiction! Unlike the dubious UFO claims of Roswell, that other “outer space attraction” in New Mexico, this is truly a man-made scientific wonder.
The VLA is a must-see attraction. It’s not a full day event, and combining a trip to the VLA with a side trip to the nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge will provide a full day of activity, especially during the fall and winter months when the migrating snow geese visit the Bosque. Also, be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks for the kids as there is nowhere to buy food near or in the VLA.
Here is an insightful video that is shown in the VLA visitors center.
The science behind the Very Large Array can be better explained by their official website (see link below). Suffice to say that this is one of the coolest places in New Mexico, and a fascinating Day Trip from Albuquerque. On the way back into Socorro, be sure to stop at the Owl Bar and Cafe for their legendary Green Chile Cheeseburgers.