‘Contact’ in Real Life: Dishes in the Desert

‘Contact’ in Real Life: Dishes in the Desert

Photo: Kevin Lizarazo

By Katherine Wright

The Very Large Array is a marvel of science, and an icon of science fiction.

One of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes, the VLA is an installation of 27 enormous antenna dishes pointed skyward from an isolated outpost in New Mexico’s Plains of San Agustin. In real life, the VLA collects radio signals from almost inconceivable depths of space. In the movies, it was where Jodie Foster heard the signals of the world’s first alien encounter in the 1997 film “Contact.”

The VLA doesn’t really search for extraterrestrial signals. The telescope can only collect signals from a small area of the sky at any one time—at most half the size of the moon as viewed from Earth. Scanning the whole sky isn’t feasible. Rather, scientists use the telescope to probe events like exploding stars and the birth of galaxies via their radio wave signals. These events happened long ago, making the VLA a time machine through which scientists can view the universe as it existed in the past.

“When we looked a few years ago at a galaxy that was something like 12.8 billion light years away, we were seeing it as it was 12.8 billion years ago, only about a billion years after the big bang,” said David Finley, the VLA’s public information officer.

Listening to the Universe

To operate 27 massive antenna dishes at the VLA, all you need to be is a master problem solver with a willingness to work strange hours and live in the middle of nowhere.

Read more

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the VLA employs around 100 engineers, electricians, mechanics and others who maintain the telescope. The scientists who use the facility, meanwhile, are located around the world.  They put in requests for specific astronomical observations that the telescope’s operators then carry out. According to Finley, the VLA receives three hours’ worth of requests for every hour of time available on the telescope, leaving many scientists disappointed.

For scientists whose requests are accepted, the opportunities for new discoveries abound. Last year, a team of American, Canadian and European scientists using the telescope captured a “fast radio burst”—an intense flash of radio waves lasting less time than it takes to blink an eye. “It was the brightest thing in the sky for a millisecond,” said Chris Carilli, the VLA’s chief scientist.

Scientists had seen these flashes in other radio wave telescopes, but not one with the resolving power needed to localize the source of the incoming signal and perhaps explain the cause of these mysterious radio bursts. Spotting them with the VLA’s highly sensitive antennas enabled the team to pinpoint the flash to a small galaxy more than three billion light years from Earth. The scientists haven’t yet determined what in the galaxy produced the flash, but they now know where to look in follow up measurements.

The VLA’s antennas are so sensitive that they could detect the signal from a single cell phone orbiting Jupiter (365 million miles away), or a microwave oven orbiting Pluto (4.67 billion miles away). The high sensitivity means that the antennas also pick up radio waves from Earth. The windows of the VLA’s buildings are covered in chicken wire to block radio waves from desktop computers and other office electronics from escaping the buildings, and visitors are required to turn their cell phones off.

Stray radio waves aren’t the VLA’s only terrestrial worry. From time to time Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque carries out training exercises, such as mock aerial battles, over the VLA, with fighter jets breaking the sound barrier. The VLA’s antenna dishes concentrate the incoming sound waves to a single point, amplifying the signal—so  the sonic booms of the fighter jets can be devastating to anyone doing maintenance in an antenna at the time. “A big sonic boom from a low-flying fighter could blow out everybody’s eardrums if they are at the focus of a dish,” said Finley. To avoid this the VLA imposed a 1,500-foot limit for fighter jets flying in the area.

The VLA’s other claim to fame is a starring role as the backdrop for the music video of the 2002 Bon Jovi song “Everyday.” As the band rocked out, thunderclouds rolled in. Seconds after Finley called timeout on filming, one of the antennas took a direct lightning hit. “It was like a bomb going off,” he said.

Photo: Kevin Lizarazo

By Katherine Wright

The Very Large Array is a marvel of science, and an icon of science fiction.

One of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes, the VLA is an installation of 27 enormous antenna dishes pointed skyward from an isolated outpost in New Mexico’s Plains of San Agustin. In real life, the VLA collects radio signals from almost inconceivable depths of space. In the movies, it was where Jodie Foster heard the signals of the world’s first alien encounter in the 1997 film “Contact.”

The VLA doesn’t really search for extraterrestrial signals. The telescope can only collect signals from a small area of the sky at any one time—at most half the size of the moon as viewed from Earth. Scanning the whole sky isn’t feasible. Rather, scientists use the telescope to probe events like exploding stars and the birth of galaxies via their radio wave signals. These events happened long ago, making the VLA a time machine through which scientists can view the universe as it existed in the past.

“When we looked a few years ago at a galaxy that was something like 12.8 billion light years away, we were seeing it as it was 12.8 billion years ago, only about a billion years after the big bang,” said David Finley, the VLA’s public information officer.

Listening to the Universe

To operate 27 massive antenna dishes at the VLA, all you need to be is a master problem solver with a willingness to work strange hours and live in the middle of nowhere.

Read more

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the VLA employs around 100 engineers, electricians, mechanics and others who maintain the telescope. The scientists who use the facility, meanwhile, are located around the world.  They put in requests for specific astronomical observations that the telescope’s operators then carry out. According to Finley, the VLA receives three hours’ worth of requests for every hour of time available on the telescope, leaving many scientists disappointed.

For scientists whose requests are accepted, the opportunities for new discoveries abound. Last year, a team of American, Canadian and European scientists using the telescope captured a “fast radio burst”—an intense flash of radio waves lasting less time than it takes to blink an eye. “It was the brightest thing in the sky for a millisecond,” said Chris Carilli, the VLA’s chief scientist.

Scientists had seen these flashes in other radio wave telescopes, but not one with the resolving power needed to localize the source of the incoming signal and perhaps explain the cause of these mysterious radio bursts. Spotting them with the VLA’s highly sensitive antennas enabled the team to pinpoint the flash to a small galaxy more than three billion light years from Earth. The scientists haven’t yet determined what in the galaxy produced the flash, but they now know where to look in follow up measurements.

The VLA’s antennas are so sensitive that they could detect the signal from a single cell phone orbiting Jupiter (365 million miles away), or a microwave oven orbiting Pluto (4.67 billion miles away). The high sensitivity means that the antennas also pick up radio waves from Earth. The windows of the VLA’s buildings are covered in chicken wire to block radio waves from desktop computers and other office electronics from escaping the buildings, and visitors are required to turn their cell phones off.

Stray radio waves aren’t the VLA’s only terrestrial worry. From time to time Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque carries out training exercises, such as mock aerial battles, over the VLA, with fighter jets breaking the sound barrier. The VLA’s antenna dishes concentrate the incoming sound waves to a single point, amplifying the signal—so  the sonic booms of the fighter jets can be devastating to anyone doing maintenance in an antenna at the time. “A big sonic boom from a low-flying fighter could blow out everybody’s eardrums if they are at the focus of a dish,” said Finley. To avoid this the VLA imposed a 1,500-foot limit for fighter jets flying in the area.

The VLA’s other claim to fame is a starring role as the backdrop for the music video of the 2002 Bon Jovi song “Everyday.” As the band rocked out, thunderclouds rolled in. Seconds after Finley called timeout on filming, one of the antennas took a direct lightning hit. “It was like a bomb going off,” he said.