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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Making Contact with the Very Large Array

By Phil Plait

The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array â or just VLA â is a collection of 28 radio dishes sitting in the New Mexico desert. Itâs been in operation since 1980, and has been incomparable in furthering our knowledge of the radio Universe. These antennae collect extremely faint radio waves from space, which whisper their secrets about black holes, young stars, violent gamma-ray bursts, and far more.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory has just released a well-done video introducing and describing this magnificent machine. And I got a good chuckle out of it: Itâs narrated by Jodie Foster, who filmed a major part of the movie Contact at VLA (itâs where she discovers the alien signal, in the iconic scene where sheâs lying on the hood of her car listening to the feed from the telescopes converted to sound).

The video plays at the VLA Visitor Center, but theyâve put it online for everyone to see. Itâs a little over 20 minutes long, and well worth the time. [NOTE: Apparently the video settings do not allow it to be played when embedded, so just click it and you'll be taken to the Vimeo page hosting it and you can watch it there.]

I visited VLA years ago to film an educational video. It was a wonderful experience, and I really relate to the shots of the wind and cold; the weather out there isâ¦interesting.

I like how the video put human faces and desires into the astronomy; that is more important than you may know. I know a lot of astronomers, including many radio astronomers, and this is more than a job; itâs their life work. The ability to use such a finely-tuned and exquisitely engineered instrument like VLA is a true treasure for them, and a boon for the knowledge of humanity. With telescopes such as these, we can see from our inner solar system to the very edge of the observable Universe.

And oh, by the way: VLA has been switched off due to the shutdown.

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