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.



The new movie Interstellar starring Matthew McConaughey and directed by Christopher Nolan is destined to become a science fiction classic like 2001 but I don’t think it will be appreciated in our time. At three hours long I think some audiences will have a hard time staying engaged. The cast and story may make it a contender for the Oscars even without commercial success.

The story starts in the near future. The only hope for humanity is to go off into space and look for a new home. The buzz about the movie talked a great deal about how they used the latest quantum science theories in the visuals. I tried to follow what I could. I’m assuming that they got the quantum mechanics right but I think the Newtonian physics and relativity science was flawed. At one point our characters fly to a planet, park in orbit and descend to the surface. Somehow on the descent to the planet time would pass more quickly. What? I guess I need to see it again to understand it. I really wanted to like this movie but the basic physics flaws really ruined it for me. It tries to be as good as Contact but what we get is an art film.

The movie was beautiful. The story and characters were interesting. The music was a bit distracting but in the end will prove as timeless as Holst. Towards the end of the move Nolan was definitely aping Kubrick. The robots in the movie a just weird but they do grow on you a bit. There’s a scene about half way through the movie where we see a robot reconfigure itself so that it can carry a person and move quickly. That was interesting.

I did enjoy seeing this movie in 70mm. As part of the release of this film Nolan gave priority to theaters that agreed to show the movie on film over digital projection. This comes on the same week that Taylor Swift is shunning Spotify so maybe its just retro fashionable like the mix tape from Guardians of the Galaxy.

I recommend this movie for sci-fi fans especially if they are a fan of 2001. If your theater is showing it in IMAX or 70mm then so much the better. For most everyone else, I’m sure there’s some other way you can spend three hours and twenty bucks. I recommend The Right Stuff.


Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission

I had the opportunity to attend the world premier of an independent documentary called Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission while at SXSW this year. All I knew about this films going in to it was that it was about the son of an astronaut who go to go into space. Right there you’ve got me hooked. I’ve followed the US Space program since before the first Space Shuttle launch. Richard Garriott is an interesting character. The movie starts with his father Owen Garriott who was a Skylab 3 and Shuttle STS-9 astronaut. Richard wrote a little game for the Apple ][ called Akalabeth which he self published with an investment in ziploc bags and floppy disks. He later went on to create the Ultima series. I remember selling his games years later when he was known as Lord British. That name may mean something for anyone who played computer games in the 80’s. He was also an SCA member at t.u.Richard took his earnings from the young online gaming industry and has invested them in life experiences. The movie showcases his joie de vivre. It was a natural extension of him to spend $30 million dollars for a 12 day excursion into orbit. As one of the first space tourists he is cutting a path for future explorers.

If you haven’t heard of this little film, I highly recommend it. It was directed by Mike Woolf. I do not expect you will see in in a theater near you. Please add it to your NetFlix queue to encourage NetFlix to pick it up for distribution. My favorite parts of this film were getting to see inside the Russian space program. The Космонавт traditions were fascinating such as letting them pee on the bus tires before boarding the rocket.

It was also interesting to see the differences between our program and theirs. The Russians are really good at getting things done. For example NASA uses a Crawler to transport the full assembled rocket from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to the launch pad. This massive tractor is incredible in scale in every way. It carried the fully assembled and loaded Saturn V rockets as well as the Space Shuttles to the Pad. It keeps itself level even when climbing up the hill. The Russians opted for a much more simple solution: they use a train. The move their rocket to the pad on a train and raise it into position only once it has reached the launch pad.

Naturally the film includes a launch sequence as well as an explanation of how the Russian rocket system works which is quite different from what we are used to seeing in our rockets.

Here is the summary from the NetFlix page.

Fulfilling a lifelong dream, computer game creator Richard Garriott becomes the first second-generation American astronaut as his $30 million ticket and secret Moscow training puts him aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket for a 12-day journey into space. Go along on his amazing ride as he orbits Earth on the International Space Station, performs experiments designed by his scientist-astronaut father, and returns with a harrowing and fiery re-entry.

–from Netflix

Present at the screening in addition to Lord British was Mike Fincke along with his wife, Renita Fincke and kids. Mike Fincke has been to the International Space Station (ISS) twice although both time on Soyuz rockets. He will return again this Summer on one of the last Space Shuttle launches. An interesting thing about Mike Fincke is that he once had a bit part in the final episode of Enterprise, These Are the Voyages…, playing an Engineer.