The Very Large Array (VLA) is one of Planet Earth’s premier astronomical radio observatories. An important component of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the VLA is located in central New Mexico and houses twenty seven 25-meter radio telescopes, arranged in a Y-shaped formation with a line of sight enveloping 13,250 square meters of sky. The VLA sits 6970 feet (2124 meters) above sea level, conducting major astronomical research observing many phenomena in space from black holes to distant stars in various stages of their life cycles. The VLA has moved astronomy forward, making innovative breakthroughs in the study of the mechanics of the universe and the nature of radio emissions.
The NRAO realized in the early 1960s that an array of radio dishes was required to supplement the findings of massive, single dish telescopes. This led to the production of the Green Bank Interferometer, an array of three telescopes, which helped develop the best practices in communication, correlation, and atmospheric correction, the foundations to prepare for the 27 dish VLA.
Congress approved the Very Large Array in August of 1972, with construction beginning in April the following year. The formal dedication of the facility occurred in 1980, concluding with a total cost of $78,578,000, at the time about $1 per tax payer. The project famously completed construction a year ahead of schedule and well within the budget.
As humidity constrains radio astronomy, the NRAO chose to build the facility in the plains of San Agustin, New Mexico, a remote flat stretch of desert northwest of Socorro, ringed by a natural fortress of mountains that keeps out radio interference from big cities. Some of VLA’s most notable discoveries include ice on Mercury, the existence of micro-quasars, the first Einstein Ring, and the billion light year diameter hole in the universe, among many more. The facility also investigates pulsars, supernova remnants, gamma ray bursts, astrophysical masers, while also perform large sky surveys, like the NRAO VLA sky survey, searching for radio sources potentially from advanced civilizations. The VLA has a presence in pop culture as well, being featured in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A personal Voyage documentary, and films including 1996’s Contact and Terminator Salvation (the location of Skynet). Interested in visiting the iconic Very Large Array? Look no further! Guided tours are offered on-sight every first Saturday of each month from 11AM to 3PM.