Riding the rails of interstellar discovery at the Very Large Array

One of two rail transporters at the Very Large Array in New Mexico – each rail transporter weighs 90 tons

It’s hard to fathom that a mere 39 miles of railway track could deliver the entire galaxy to astronomers around the globe. But, when the cargo is limited to 230 ton radio telescopes being moved into position, then such a railway must truly be out-of-this-world! That’s what you will find at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in west-central New Mexico.

Image of the “Y-shaped” configuration of the Very Large Array – the north arm is 11 miles long, while the southeast and southwest arms are 13 miles long each

The VLA facility contains 28 enormous radio telescopes (or antenna), of which 27 are operating at all times. Whenever these antenna need to be re-positioned along the array’s Y-shaped corridors or one needs to be taken to the maintenance facility for upgrades and/or repairs, they/it are hydraulically lifted onto a specialized rail car which transports them around the facility on a double set of tracks.

“The antennas are placed in four standard configurations, with the maximum separation ranging from 1 km to 36 km. The configuration is changed approximately once every four months by using special transporter vehicles to move the antennas along dual sets of of railroad tracks and place them on concrete pads distributed along the arms of the `’Y”.”

Source: http://www.nrao.edu/pr/2000/vla20/background/vlafacts/
Radio telescope (antenna) at the maintenance building on 3/18/23 with a rail transporter and tracks in the foreground.

Visible in the images both above and below, is perhaps most unique feature about VLA’s railway — the railroad tracks intersect at 90 degree angles. This requires the rail transporters to have specialized wheels that can rotate 90 degrees as well. Here are links to three YouTube videos that include segments about of the rail transporters.

“The wheels are mounted on assemblies at each corner of the vehicle that can rotate to allow “turning” the 90-degree rail intersections that connect each antenna mounting station with the main rail line for each arm of the VLA’s “Y” layout.”

Source: public.nrao.edu/telescopes/VLA/
Intersection of two railway tracks at the Very Large Array

If you ever get a chance to visit the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, be sure to take advantage of the opportunity. There is so much to learn and see there and it is available at a nominal price of admission (though you must purchase your tickets online in advance). Hopefully, while visiting, you will get a chance to see the rail transporters — maybe even in action. These impressive vehicles are the heavy-lifting workhorses of the facility. They and their rail network are easily one of the most unique railway systems on the entire planet, in our solar system, or perhaps even in the whole galaxy. Peace!


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