VLA: Very Large Array

One of my favorite photo-walks was in May, 2011 to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico. I was working in Albuquerque and decided to head out there before the visitor center closed so I could get pictures at sunset. It’s a pretty long drive out of town out into the desert. Once you pass Socorro, you still have nearly another hour drive to get there. I stopped in the small town of Magdalena (population 938) for dinner. The VLA is in a bowl of mountains. Signs tell you to turn off all devices with radios in them. Forget about cell coverage or Wi-Fi. The VLA is a collection of 27 satellite dishes on railroad tracks in a giant “Y” on the desert floor. Each dish is 82 feet in diameter. They move these 230 ton dishes with a pair of train tracks so they can reconfigure the array or bring a dish in for repair. The individual dishes can move to track deep space objects or can be moved in unison to create a virtual dish 22 miles in diameter.

The dishes were featured in movies like Contact2010: The Year We Make Contact, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Terminator Salvation, and Independence Day.  The visitor center is interesting to give you the history of the Array and information about it siblings around the world. I did see some wildlife there: a rabbit and some deer. I took a few hundred pictures. I took some with a tripod and some were handheld. I used a polarizing filter to play with the contrast between the sky and the the dish. It was a challenge to get the pictures to show the detail on the outside of the dishes without bleaching out the inside of the dish or making it too dark. The sky was nearly a perfect clear blue that you can see in some pictures but is washed out in others.

As the sun went down and I got kicked out of the Visitors Center, I scrambled to find a place to get a picture of a dish backlit by the sunset. I managed to get a few pictures that I’m proud of that I used for a while as my wallpaper on my iPad and iPhone. The pictures below are nearly direct from the camera. The images have been scaled but not re-touched or tone-mapped. I shot straight to JPEG format. The camera was my Canon EOS Rebel T1i.


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