This is the Very Large Array in the desert about 50 miles from Socorro, New Mexico. As many people know, it’s a field of 27 giant radio telescopes used by the National Science Foundation for research of astronomical phenomena. Aside from being visually impressive, even seen (as here) from space, the VLA is one of the most interesting and successful scientific installations in the United States, representing for nearly 40 years the crucial role of public money in large-scale science and research.
The story of the VLA began in the early ’70s with an NSF scientist named David Heeschen, who envisioned a national system of radio telescopes for coordinated study of sky phenomenon. In the wake of the successful U.S. landing on the Moon, Congress was in a mood to fund science and space research, and the money to construct the telescopes began flowing in 1972. The first of the huge dishes–82 feet across–came online in 1975, and the whole facility was finished in 1980. In addition to observing and collecting radio wave data emitted by natural phenomena such as quasars and distant galaxies, the telescopes of the VLA have also been used to monitor transmissions from space probes, such as Voyager.
Despite the appearance of the VLA as a dramatic backdrop in movies like Contact and 2010 dealing with aliens, the VLA telescopes have actually never been used to search for transmissions from intelligent extraterrestrials. One wonders what we might discover if the NSF did use them for that purpose; maybe the mystery of the WOW! Signal might be solved.
Astonishingly, these complex machines hummed along for over 30 years using 1970s-era technology and computers. They were finally upgraded in 2011, and shortly thereafter the facility was renamed for Karl G. Jansky, the founder of radio astronomy.