VLA and the town that never was….

The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) is located close to the town of Socorro, New Mexico and is perhaps best known as the radio telescope facility used by Jodie Foster in the movie ‘Contact’. There are 27 antennas on site, with each having a diameter of 25 metres, over 27 metres high and weighing 230 tons. All 27 antennas work as one telescope system and a central supercomputer combines the signals from each dish into one. They form a ‘Y’ shape and there are rail tracks along which the antennas can be moved, effectively zooming in or out to produce images of varying detail, depending on the requirements.

One of 27 radio telescopes at the VLA, New Mexico. Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.
One of 27 radio telescopes at the VLA, New Mexico.
Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.

There is a walking track outside with informative information about radio astronomy which takes you out to a nearby dish for a closer look. While there the dish was repositioned a few times and just watching this huge, 230 ton metal dish move with such precision to accurately pinpoint a specific target in the sky really enhanced what an amazing engineering feat these telescopes are.

Part of the VLA array, New Mexico. Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.
Part of the VLA array, New Mexico.
Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.

The Bracewell Radio Sundial named after Ronald N. Bracewell (an Australian) who worked on radar in WWII, afterwards developing many mathematical methods for creating images with radio telescopes and later helped adapt techniques of radio-astronomy to make CAT scans a reality.

This sundial is an amazing instrument, not only telling solar time but also having markers for solstices, equinoxes and three strong radio sources in the sky; Cygnus A, Cassiopeia A and Centaurus A. It is an interesting exercise to work out the sidereal time and see if any of these objects are above the horizon.

The Bracewell Sundial, VLA, New Mexico. Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.
The Bracewell Sundial, VLA, New Mexico.
Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.

 

The town that never was…

The Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos is a fascinating place to visit as it covers the history of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the town’s initial formation around the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb by a group of scientists led by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Originally Los Alamos was ‘the town that never was’ as the Manhattan Project was so secret that officially the town did not exist. The town’s mail all went to PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico, to keep its existence secret. The inhabitants of Santa Fe called the town ‘The Hill’ while the military called it ‘Project Y’.

This is a sensitive subject for many reasons and the Museum recognises this and has a public forum space where visitors are welcome to leave their thoughts and comments.

I found it interesting to learn more about the atomic physics and where this research has led us to in the present day. I was also interested to learn Robert Oppenheimer’s thoughts when the first atomic bomb detonated in the Trinity test in New Mexico: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” which he read and translated from the original Sanskrit text in a later interview. Regardless of your thoughts on this subject, the Museum is worth a visit, if simply to learn and understand more about this piece of history.

The Bradbury Science Museum, New Mexico. Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.
The Bradbury Science Museum, New Mexico.
Photo and copyright Melissa Hulbert ©, all rights reserved.
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