Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Very Large Array

Driving thru south central New Mexico, my wife and I happened on a spot on the map in a deserted high mountain valley that said VLA.  We were intrigued as we drove down into the valley and saw radio telescopes, equally spaced as far as the eye could see, in the shape of a Peace Sign.  We stopped at a giant one near the road to get a sense of the scale and followed the signs to the visitor center for the Very Large Array (VLA). 

The array was set up years ago, by the government, when it was discovered that the center of our galaxy emits a continuous 3 Watt radio wave.  Further research found that all black holes emit such a wave and mapping them reveals great secrets of the universe.  Jody Foster stared in a movie called Contact, set at the VLA, where she was listening for ET and heard from her deceased father.  There are other arrays, large and small, located across the country and around the world but this one is the Very Large one.  It contains 30-40 huge radio telescopes stretched across the valley with a 14 mile diameter.  They are coordinated and phased in a central operation building and the processed data is available on the internet for all to share.

We went inside the visitor center and were lucky to find that we were there on monthly tour day and the real scientists were running the tour that day to give the normal tour guides a break.  We had two Chilean astrophysicists lead us around and tell us the secrets of the array and of the universe.  One was studying a hole in the universe one billion light years wide with no galaxies or stars.  The other was looking for the 95% of the mass, or Dark Matter, that is missing from the universe from the original big bang.  What a job.

They took us into the control room where an operator was preparing to change the program and the focus of the array for the next research project on his long list.  At the proper time the entire array started to move in unison, like choreographed ballet dancers, towards another spot in the sky, except for one.  Far out on the plain a giant radio telescope went limp on its stand, refusing to move or refocus.  I pointed this slacker out to the operator and he became very agitated, pressed a lot of buttons and asked us to leave the room.  Our guides gave me the stink eye as I mouthed the words ‘I didn't touch anything”.


We continued our tour with discussions on anti-matter, black holes and the place where god lives.  I faded away from the group when the questions deteriorated to topics of the federal government, funding, furloughs, data sharing and immigrants. I focused my attention on the flaccid little telescope out on the plains.  It had finally woken up and was joining the others in their singular focus on the stars and other worlds.  Our guides suggested that I do the same.