An out-of-this-world visit to the Very Large Array (VLA)

This past Thursday afternoon several of us had an exciting opportunity to visit the Very Large Array (VLA) in west-central New Mexico. Anyone who has watched the 1997 movie Contact starring Jodie Foster should be familiar with the VLA. More formally known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the VLA is an impressive complex consisting of 28 radio telescopes situated on the San Agustin Plains – a dry desert bed of an ancient lake nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. It began operations in 1980.

“The desert climate of the San Agustin Plain is critical to the success of the VLA. Humidity is a real problem in radio astronomy, because water molecules distort the radio waves passing through them and also give off their own radio waves that interfere with observations at certain frequencies. Radio telescopes that collect radio waves in the same frequencies as water’s radio waves need to be in deserts to reduce this background signal from Earth-based water molecules.”


The self-guided walking tour (advance purchase is required) takes visitors through the Visitors Center where there are displays, several films, and a gift shop; then outdoors to several interesting astronomical presentations; followed by a trip to one of the 28 radio telescopes for a closer view. Visitors then pass by the onsite operations building and a sculpted monument on the site. The primary operations center is located on the campus of New Mexico Tech in Socorro, which is 50 miles to the east.


Lastly, visitors can drive to see the enormous maintenance building (see below) where the radio telescopes are transported by a unique railway for servicing and repair and then are returned to their desired placement site. To give an idea of the scale of each radio telescope, according to on-site signage, each antenna is 94 feet high when pointed straight up, 82 feet wide, and weighs 235 tons.

The most fascinating detail about this impressive facility was the fact that the receiver for each radio telescope must be kept at a temperature of -427 degrees Fahrenheit. Brrr!

Also located here is the Long Wavelength Array (LWA) which consists of 256 smaller antenna units designed as the one shown below. This project is a joint project of the University of New Mexico, the Naval Research Laboratory, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Virginia Tech, Los Alamos National Lab, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Anyone interested in science, technology, physics, outer space, and/or astronomy in general would find a visit to the VLA very enjoyable and rewarding. Enjoy the photos from our visit which are presented throughout this blogpost. Peace!


If the VLA or astronomy interest you, here are a couple of resources available through*

Link – Open Skies
Link – Contact

*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using the above link to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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