Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Supplement ~ Contacting New Mexico

Back in Oklahoma again - somewhat reluctantly I might add! We love to wander in New Mexico, well-named Land of Enchantment. There's no end to the delights of that state, whether in the northern section among the arty communities of Santa Fe & Taos, and among ancient Anasazi dwellings; or in the south (as we were this trip) with its Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Roswell, Alamogordo, Ruidoso, Cloudcroft and beautiful scenery around every bend. It's easy to understand why artist Georgia O'Keeffe was so taken with the state - her words on arriving there:...
"Well! Well! Well!... This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!"

An unexpected treat this trip was a visit to The Very Large Array (VLA) - a radio astronomy observatory located on the Plains of San Agustin, which lie very much in the middle of nowhere. This is the site featured in the movie Contact. I accidentally discovered that it's around 100 miles from Alamogordo, where we spent 2 nights. We decided this was a side trip too good to miss, so a night in Socorro, 50 miles from the VLA followed.

Our minds were boggled by details offered in a video presentation available at the visitors' center. We were told that weak radio waves from celestial objects are collected by the 27 antennas of the array. The antennas can track an object across the sky with an accuracy of 10 seconds of arc, which is 1/180 of the diameter of the full Moon. Total weight of each antenna is 230 tons, 100 tons of which is in the movable reflector.

Each unit can be set on tracks - like railway tracks - so can be differently configured to suit any specific purpose.

(Click on image to enlarge)

From a leaflet for visitors:
If our eyes could see radio waves instead of light, the sky would look strangely different. A bright Sun would be visible, but the daytime sky would seem dark like the night. The familiar bright stars would be gone. Instead the heavens would be full of glowing nebulous patterns of emission that arise from clouds of hot interstellar gas or from super high energy cosmic rays that swarm along the magnetic pathways of our galaxy.

Wikipedia has details of the observatory and related tid-bits, including:

The VLA featured prominently in Carl Sagan's 1980 documentary Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and is the setting for the beginning of the 1984 film 2010—with the same scene in the novel 2010: Odyssey Two, from which the film was adapted, being set at the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico......The 1985 novel Contact features a fictionalized version of the VLA, expanding the number of dishes to 131 and renaming it to the "Argus Array." For the 1997 film Contact, much of the outdoor footage was shot at the VLA site with the number of dishes visible on screen artificially increased by CGI, and the canyon depicted as being in the vicinity of the VLA is actually Canyon de Chelly in neighboring Arizona. It is also seen in the final scene of the alien-invasion film The Arrival, and the beginning of Independence Day, when the alien invaders were initially detected by SETI at the VLA. In the 2009 science-fiction film Terminator Salvation, the VLA is the location of a Skynet facility.

We dodged severe weather until our last overnighter in Clovis, on the border of New Mexico and Texas. There, on Friday, a series of thunder storms and torrential, almost tropical-type rain quickly set the highways inches deep in water. Driving around town became similar to one of those funfair water-splash rides - but not as much fun!


Wisewebwoman said...

Isn't it Stephen Hawkings who's telling us that to be discovered might not be the greatest thing for poor little Gaia....
Glad you're back and New Mexico has been on my list of places to see.

Rossa said...

WWW is right though he did say that any visitors were more likely to be friendly because the effort involved to get here would mean that while their technology would "out gun" our own to make such an effort just to be hostile would be unlikely.

A bit like when the Americas were discovered. It was a long and arduous journey to travel across the Atlantic just to conquer new lands. Supplies for the "invaders" are scarce and communications would be scant if at all possible so I prefer to believe that any contact is more than likely going to be benign.

And anyway any race with the capability to get here would also be able to wipe us out. So why worry, there wouldn't be much we could do unless you believe in the War of the Worlds scenario where a simple virus or common cold could potentially wipe out any unsuspecting alien landing here.

Rock on Doctor Who, says I.

PS Welcome back. You went away at a good time compared to the upheaval here in Old Blighty with our election etc.

Twilight said...

WWW and Rossa ~~~ Hi again !

You know, in spite of what the movie "Contact", and others have indicated, I'm not sure the prime purpose of the VLA and other such installations is to listen for signs of life elsewhere- though it has to be on their list. I recall the video we watched seemed to indicate that what astronomers seek mainly is evidence of how and why the Big Bang took place, and to gain more info about the origin of our universe (and existence of others maybe?)

If any "signals" were received from out there, they'd have originated millions or billions of years ago, due to the distances involved - so their source could by now have disappeared or changed in many ways.

Mind-boggling stuff!

Rossa ~ I heard via TV about the UK election result. Not what I was hoping for. Maybe another election won't be long in coming!
I can't see that combination lasting. :-)

anthonynorth said...

I'd love to visit that place. Looks like you had a good trip.

R J Adams said...

Welcome back! It sounds like you had a great trip. Yes, it is a shame you had to return to the 'Heartlands'. We're off to Marquette, (Michigan) at the end of the month - to buy a house! In another twelve months I'll be 65, then we're going to retire up there. Maybe it won't be too long before I shake the chemical dust of the 'Heartlands' from my boots, once and for all.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~~~ Yes - a very good trip!

Woweee--- that's exciting news of yours! Retirement and FREEDOM!!!
And the cherry on top is you're going to a place you love to be.
I bet you're jumping up and down anxious to be off already!