Making Contact at the VLA—New Mexico

by | Apr 19, 2019 | Destinations, United States

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Visiting the Very Large Array, New Mexico

In the remote high desert sits a very unique destination: the Very Large Array in New Mexico. I know what you’re thinking. What the heck is the Very Large Array? Well, it just so happens to be one of the largest radio observatories in the world—and a filming location for the movie “Contact.”

With its 27 massive radio telescope antennas (each one 25 meters across), the VLA can study pulsars, quasars, and black holes. It even searches for advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. Thanks to its constantly shifting antenna configuration and its location in the New Mexico desert, the VLA can explore up to 80% of the Earth’s night sky.

The best part about all of this? You can visit it yourself. Here is our guide to checking out the Very Large Array, New Mexico if you happen to find yourself near Socorro, NM.

Visiting the Very Large Array: the 27 giant radio telescopes scour the heavens for pulsars, quasars, black holes, and more.

Stop at the Visitor Center First

Before you can galavant around the VLA site, you first need to head to the Visitor Center. There, you pay your admission ($6 for adults) and can read about the history of the VLA. Additionally, the Visitor Center features a 23-minute documentary produced and narrated by Jodie Foster.

Pick up an informational brochure and guide to the grounds of the site. From there, you can begin the walking tour.

Visiting the Very Large Array: the giant, 25-meter radio telescope antennas move across the grounds on railroad tracks.

The Walking Tour

Several interactive exhibits greet you as you begin the walking tour. First up is a solar radio telescope. We tried to get this to work, but had trouble figuring it out. We also watched several others struggle with this apparatus, so I’m pretty sure it was broken and we weren’t just being dummies. But you never know!

Next comes the whisper dishes. These are two fairly large parabolic dishes set opposite of each other at a fairly decent distance. You can stand at one dish and whisper sweet nothings to the other person, who will be able to hear every breathless word in the other dish. Tiffany and I spent a great deal of time whispering ridiculous things to each other, because we’re immature. But it sure was fun, in a middle-schooler kind of way.

From there, you can meander up to one of the active VLA radio telescope antennas. Saying they are 25 meters in diameter is one thing; actually standing next to them and seeing how large they are is another. These dishes are simply massive. If you’re having a bad body day and want to feel small, just stand next to one of these for a while. It will help. Trust me.

The rest of the tour provides some elevated views of the antennas, some artwork, and a sundial. While it’s not exactly part of the walking tour, you can also take a short drive from the Visitor Center to the antenna assembly building, which is also gigantic. Nothing about the VLA is what I’d call small. I suppose that with the name “Very Large Array,” you should expect that.

Visiting the Very Large Array: searching for extraterrestrial life should be the main goal for the VLA. At least in my opinion.

Way Out There, But Worth a Stop

After spending a good deal of time in the Santa Fe area, Tiffany and I enjoyed our drive south through New Mexico. We planned to spend the night camping near Socorro, so the VLA made for a logical sightseeing venture.

I will warn you, however, that there is not much around this area. If you aren’t at least semi-interested in gargantuan radio telescope antennas and the search for extra-terrestrial life (which should be the main goal of the VLA, in my humble opinion) then this probably isn’t the stop for you.

However, if you’re leisurely making your way south of Albuquerque, set aside a few hours and make a detour to the Very Large Array. It honestly was one of the more interesting places we’ve visited so far on the trip.

Even if they didn’t provide me with any photographic evidence of aliens.

Other New Mexico Favorites:

Meow Wolf Experience

Top 7 Things To Do in Santa Fe

Where to Eat in Santa Fe

How to Spend a Day in Bandelier National Monument

We’re Tiffany and John, a couple of childfree, DIY travel enthusiasts from Montana and we just can’t get enough of life on the open road. If you’re anything like us, then you feel the same way! We love exploring new places together and finding unique things to do everywhere we go. Read more about our story here.

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