The Very Large Array, New Mexico is the world’s most famous collection of radio telescopes. Find out visitor info, technology behind VLA, & list of popular film credits!
Visiting the Very Large Array, New Mexico
The Very Large Array Visitor Center ($6) is open daily from 8:30 am until sunset. Inside you will find a video showing how the 27 telescopes are moved, and a film narrated by Jodie Foster along with a map for the self-guided tour.
The self-guided tour takes you past a sundial, whisper dishes, and ultimately concludes at the base of a VLA telescope where you can see just how massive each dish is.
Although there are always 27 telescopes in operation, there is a spare for emergencies that allows for periodic maintenance. You may see the 28th dish in the shed behind you.
Alternatively, you can visit the VLA the first and third Saturday of each month for guided tours at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm. The first Saturday in April and October are free to guests. This also includes the free Guided Night Sky Telescope Viewing at the Etscorn Obervatory that occurs the first Saturday of each month.
When we were visiting, we saw people head straight to the guided path and avoid entering the Very Large Array Visitor Center. I guess they just watched the informational video online and saved $6 per person.
Although Socorro is the nearest town, the closest big city is Albuquerque. A 2 hour drive (127 miles) is required to reach the remote VLA telescopes.
The location was purposely chosen to limit outside interference from radio stations and cell phone towers. The weak astronomical radio waves must be discernible from man-made interference. Even a single out-of-range cell phone carries a stronger signal in the operating spectrum than anything from space.
For this reason, the Very Large Array Radio Telescope facility requests that all devices be put in airplane mode and turned off. They may be turned on briefly to take pictures while still in airplane mode.
Technology Behind the VLA
The VLA sits on an old lake bed in New Mexico with 27 telescopes set-up in a Y pattern that stretches up to 13 miles in each direction. Together, and with upgraded electronics in 2011, they combine their data via a supercomputer that turns all 27 dishes into one massive virtual telescope.
The electronics were upgraded from the 1970’s original version since the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) did not have the funding to build a completely new array. The existing infrastructure and dishes were able to be re-utilized.
Each dish is 94’ tall with an 82’ diameter. They are moved every four months to one of four different configurations. This allows the combination of data from different depths that increases the detail level. Configuration A is the largest, while configuration D is the most concentrated. Configurations B and C fall in between.
Each Very Large Array telescope sits on one of 72 telescope stations that is connected to the main rail track. Parallel rail tracks transport the telescopes to different configurations, with side tracks shifting them to their final location.
Antenna transporters move the 230 ton telescopes at a whopping 5 mph when wind conditions are under 20 mph. When at the side tracks, hydraulic jacks are used to rotate the wheels 90 degrees before bolting the telescope into its new location.
Unlike traditional telescopes that record visible light, the Very Large Array telescopes can record information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Radio waves are the longest out of the full spectrum. Roughly every 6 hours, the telescopes reposition their view and move on to another portion of the sky.
Not only is the Very Large Array famous for being in movies and film, but it is arguably the most accomplished radio telescope on Earth. Scientific contributions include new discoveries on black holes, quasars, and hydrogen gas.
Very Large Array (VLA) Film Credits
You might not have realized it at the time, but the Very Large Array, New Mexico has been featured in movies, documentaries, commercials, music videos, and on album covers.
Here are some of the places you may have seen the VLA. How many do you recognize?
- Carl Sagan’s documentary Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)
- 2010: The Year we Make Contact (1984) while discussing upcoming missions to Jupiter
- Dire Straits’ album cover On the Night (1993) and Encores (1993) and in their music video
- Contact (1997) with Jodie Foster where an alien signal is first detected
- Bon Jovi’s music video Everyday (2002)
- Terminator Salvation (2009) as the Skynet facility
- Dodge Trucks commercial (2010)
Planning Your New Mexico Road Trip
The Very Large Array was one of the first stops on our New Mexico road trip after we finished our things to do in Albuquerque. If you flew into Albuquerque airport like us you can check car rental prices here.
After our visit we continued heading south and drove for 3.5 hours for City of Rocks camping and short hikes. You can combine your City of Rocks State Park visit with Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and discover the top things to do in Silver City, New Mexico.
Although the US is a relatively safe country to travel in, medical costs are high so we always recommend purchasing travel insurance before any trip. We’ve been using World Nomads in our travels through 80+ countries over the past 12 years. It’s the best-value provider we’ve found in terms of price and coverage, and we haven’t had any issues when we’ve had to make (fortunately) minor claims.
Know Before You Go
- Hours: 8:30 am to sunset; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
- Fees: $6 per person; Guided tours 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month, 1st Saturday in April and October is free
- Duration: 1 hour
- Nearest Large City: Albuquerque at 2 hours by car; Socorro at 1 hour by car
- Website: Very Large Array (VLA)
- Phone Number: (575) 835-7410
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Visited in October 2018
Updated July 2019