Can you hear me now?

Many radio telescopes of the Very Large Array, Socorro, New Mexico


The sun shines intermittently on the fresh snow that blankets the desert vegetation of the Plains  of San Agustin, an area 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico .  There are storm clouds to the west threatening more snow, but for the moment the crisp air is refreshing.   The high, broad plains seem empty and isolated, a perfect location for listening to space.

So we should be able to hear something with the Very Large Array or VLA, a collection of 27 large radio telescopes capable of being moved along railroad tracks to form many different configurations.  The independent dishes can be linked together to create a single massive radio telescope or interferometer.  The largest configuration of the array has a diameter of 36 km or 22.3 miles.  Pretty impressive and ingenious.

If these telescopes look familiar its because they have been featured in many science fiction films, most notably “Contact” with Jodi Foster.  However, unlike in the movie, these radio telescopes are not really listening for ET, but are used to “see” distant space objects like planets, stars and galaxies.