Very Large Array Radio Telescope

New Mexico

A sense of awe, or maybe galactic sadness, inevitably strikes as you approach the 27 enormous antenna dishes sprouting from the high plains 40 miles west of Socorro. The 240-ton dishes comprise the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array Radio Telescope. Together, they combine to form a very large eyeball – or is it an eardrum? – studying the outer edges of the universe. It's a fascinating place, with exhibits, a documentary film and a self-guided walking tour.

It would take a 422ft-wide satellite dish to provide the same resolution that the changing configurations of the 82ft-wide antennas offer the observatory. What can we learn from them? The radio waves collected by these huge dishes reveal the relativistic electron movement in the heavens and allow geophysicists to wonder at the wobble of the earth on its axis. They have also increased our understanding of the complex phenomena that make up the surface of the sun and have given us a look at the internal heating source deep within the interiors of several planets sharing our orbit. In summary, they provide us with just enough information to turn our concepts of time and space inside-out as we extrapolate the existence of varieties of matter that, sans satellites, might only exist in our imaginations. And without them, Jodie Foster never could have flashed forward into our future (or was it her past?) in the movie Contact, which was filmed here with help from Canyon de Chelly.

Guided tours are offered on the first and third Saturdays of the month at 11am, 1pm and 3pm. You are required to turn off wi-fi and Bluetooth devices on-site. Bring your good camera because it can be hard to capture the antennas on a cell phone if they are in one of their expanded configurations. The antennas are furthest apart in the A configuration and closest together in the D configuration.

And why the galactic sadness? Though the VLA isn't a SETI location searching for signs of extra-terrestrial life, our mother earth exudes a bit of cosmic insignificance here with her lonely cluster of telescopes scanning the heavens for…something.