This portion of the web doesn't cover current events. The four characters (N.E.W.S.) represents the compass points: North, East, West and South. Here you will find information about various world-wide destinations. This page is updated with facts and images on a number of destinations. Previous themes and topics have been moved to the ARCHIVE section of the web.
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If You Go:
Socorro's Radio Telescope Array
Thanks to science fiction movies like Contact and Independence Day, many people picture radio astronomy as a room filled with scientists, listening to patterns of hisses and crackles coming from a loudspeaker or set of headphones. Suddenly, a pattern emerges that sends them scrambling to tape recorders and telephones. They’ve finally received the eagerly awaited message from space that suggests an alien civilization. Alas, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Before 1974 the high plain of San Agustin in western New Mexico was a harsh and barren landscape suitable only to desert plants, snakes, and lizards. Since then it has become home to one of the worlds’ most famous astronomical observatories - the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array; more commonly known as the Very Large Array or simply the VLA. With its’ twenty-seven parabolic dish antennas — each weighing over 200-tons — it is the most complex radio telescope facility in the world.
At the VLA astronomers don't "listen" for radio transmissions; they "look" at objects that send out energy beyond the wavelength of visible light. Computer turn these invisible waves into pixels and assigns them false colors - similar to the way a thermal image falsely assigns different colors to warmer and colder areas of an object, allowing us to see heat. And although SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) research is real and ongoing work, it does not take place here. This facility was not built for that purpose.
The twenty-seven antennas of the VLA are arranged across the site in the shape of a giant "Y"; each arm is a parallel set of rails thirteen miles long. A special trolley lifts and moves the antennas along this rail system, repositioning them about once every four months. By arranging the antenna closer together or farther apart, the size of the celestial field scanned is changed. It's the radio telescope equivalent of a zoom lens.
At their greatest separation (designated the "D" array), their end-to-end distance is 22 miles — a diameter that could surround the city of Washington D.C. Linked together by a computer that processes the incoming data using a technique called radio interferometry, each antenna scans the same object as the earth rotates and produces exquisitely detailed images with results that would otherwise be obtained from a single antenna 22-miles in diameter.
To focus on the proper area of the sky, each individual antenna dish can pivot and arc across the heavens. It is indeed a strange experience to see these giants change the direction they face. All twenty-seven of the massive 82-foot diameter antennas rotate about as one. Neither the mechanical clatter of opening and closing circuits, nor the hum of electric motors associated with mechanical movement is heard. With a ghostly silence the white, parabolic faces eerily turn about like giant flowers following an invisible sun.
Since the first VLA antenna became operational in 1975, the facility has examined thousands of objects both in our own Solar System as well as in the farthest reaches of the Universe. Besides such exotic discoveries as gravitational lenses, micro-quasars, and cosmic jets of material from the hearts of distant galaxies, the VLA has detected water ice on Mercury —
the planet closest to our sun.
While we can easily detect the light emitting planets, stars, and galaxies in the sky, the radio emissions from space are many times weaker than the dimmest star. During the tenth anniversary rerun of the television series Cosmos, the late Dr. Carl Sagan commented at the end of an episode that the total energy collected by all the radio telescopes in the world was less than the energy produced by a single snowflake hitting the ground.
Because the signals received at the VLA are so weak, research depends on interference-free reception. Earthborn transmissions can mask the incoming signal or - even worse - give astronomers tainted data that could lead to erroneous interpretations. Therefore, it is important to remember to keep your cell phones and your RV's microwave oven turned off while visiting the site.
The VLA is located about 50 miles west of Socorro on U.S. Highway 60. From U.S. Highway 60, turn south on NM 52 and then West on the VLA access road, which is well marked. Signs will point you to the Visitor Center, where there is ample parking.
Most visitors opt for the self-guided tour of the facility. Trails are well marked and it takes about an hour to visit the sites displays. Free guided-tours are available on weekends during the summer (mid-June through early August). Go to the VLA website for information for the starting time of the tours and to inquire about tours at other times of the year. Because there is much computer equipment and areas within the buildings aren't designed to handle large groups, tours are limited to the outside of the facility only.
Restrooms, drinking water, and a soft drink vending machine are available at the visitors' center, but food is unavailable at the VLA, so don't expect to have lunch there. The nearest restaurants are in Magdalena (about 25 miles to the east) and Datil (about 20 miles to the west). Picnic tables are located at the site near the visitors' gallery and along Highway 60 east of the VLA (but remeber to keep America beautiful and clean your area before you leave).
The VLA closes to the public at dusk; if you arrival late in the day, consider spending the night at a nearby town and visiting the site the following day. While Datil has a campground with 22 self-contained units, the nearest RV sites are in Magdalena and Socorro. The nearest lodging is in Magdalena.
At an elevation of 7,000 feet, the weather at the VLA can be considerably colder than that at lower elevations. From September through May snow is possible, so check weather reports if you plan on traveling there during these months and dress accordingly.
More information about radio astronomy, the VLA, and the dates and times of their guided tours can be found on the web at www.vla.nrao.edu.