Day 939: The VLA, Bosque del Apache NWR, El Camino Real IHC

This morning I woke up before sunrise.  I wanted to take off from our dispersed camping location on BLM land to get an aerial view of the Very Large Array.  The lack of wind coupled with the thin air at over 7000’ of elevation here would require a great deal of running to launch, and a correspondingly high speed landing, so I decided not to risk equipment and limb:

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This high up, it’s pretty cold in the morning:

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Rather than go back out to the highway to get to the VLA, we decided to continue along the dirt road that led to our overnight camping location.  We had to open and close a number of cattle gates:

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We drove towards the VLA, which is composed of 27 radio antennas that ride on three railroad tracks.  The antennas are moved along the rails to place the array in one of four different configurations, each of which provides different detection characteristics, like changing the zoom on an optical lens.  This configuration shown here is comparatively compact, as the railway that defines each leg of the “Y” is 12 miles long.  Image courtesy NRAO:

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Each antenna lives on a mount next to the rails used to change the antenna positions in the array.  Image courtesy NRAO:

On the way to the VLA, we passed an antenna mount point used in a wider array configuration than the configuration currently in use.  A special locomotive drives under an antenna, lifts it up,and rolls out to the main rails.  The locomotive then lifts each of its corners at a time, rotating the lifted wheel assembly 90 degrees and then lowering the rotated wheel assembly onto the main rails.  Once all four locomotive wheel assemblies are rotated onto the main rails, the locomotive moves the antenna at a maximum speed of 2 MPH to the antenna’s updated mount point.  The process is then reversed to place the antenna on it’s updated mount point:

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The VLA rails on this one of the three legs of the “Y” extend into the distance in both directions:

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We at last arrived at the entrance to the VLA:

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The VLA is so sensitive that it could detect a cell phone signal emanating from Jupiter, so it’s understandable that local radio signals need to be kept to a minimum to avoid interference with ongoing observations.  Unlike optical observations, radio observations go on both day and night:

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We watched the site video, narrated by actress Jodi Foster, who starred in the movie Contact which was partially filmed here.  We also checked out the displays in the auditorium:

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A feedhorn like this is used by the VLA antennas to receive radio signals.  Each antenna contains many feedhorns which vary dramatically in size, each feedhorn’s size being proportional to the wavelength of the radio signal it is designed to receive:

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This model shows an antenna about to the moved by the special locomotive mentioned above:

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We went outside on the walking tour.  The first stop was this radio telescope we were able to aim and watch a meter on the telescope change based on how much radio “light” was received.  We discovered that the sun emits a good bit of radio signal:

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This exhibit showed the power of parabolic dishes to focus an incoming signal.  B and Trish could whisper into their dish and hear each other very clearly over this considerable distance:

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Dishes everywhere:

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Each dish is 82 feet wide and weighs 230 tons:

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Throughout our visit, the dishes moved in unison as they observed different points in space.  Dishes under repair did not move along with their operational counterparts:

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Our last stop was the antenna barn where the antennas are serviced.  The VLA uses 27 antennas for observation, but the array has 28 antennas so that one antenna can be in the barn while the rest are observing:

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The signal hits the main dish, bounces up to the secondary reflector mounted on the arms, then back down into the feedhorns clustered at the center of the dish:

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We drove east and south to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  Probably the most famous wildlife refuge in the US, Bosque del Apache hosts Sandhill Cranes for the winter portion of their annual migration:

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Sadly, the cranes for the most part have departed, but we contented ourselves with a tour of the refuge’s cactus garden:

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The visitor center was quite well done:

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Like the NPS Junior Ranger program, Fish and Wildlife has a Junior Refuge Manager program at a few of the wildlife refuges.  The kids completed their workbooks and received their badges:

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Our last stop of the day was El Camino Real International Heritage Center, a New Mexico state historic site:

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The visitor center tells the story of the El Camino Real, a pathway of trade and colonization used for over 300 years. Juan de Oñate, whose own signature we saw carved at El Morro National Monument a few days ago, travelled this route in 1598 from Mexico in an effort to colonize what today is New Mexico:

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The visitor center was very well done:

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The kids completed their Junior Ranger workbooks and received their patches:

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We continued south to Elephant Butte Lake State Park, where for only $8 a night we will be camped beachside and doing some flying over the next few days.

See the trip map for today’s drive and our current location.

Day 938: Western NM Aviation Heritage Museum, El Malpais NM and NCA
Day 940: Beach Fun at Elephant Butte Lake SP

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