Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 29, 2016

Deep Dish: Very Large Array

Problems in astrophysics are phenomenally complex. First, there are the issues of scale and distance. To study the universe, one needs to detect small amounts of radiation coming from far across the vastness of space, and we have only our single spot in the galaxy from which to capture them.

More complexity derives from the fact that everything is in motion. Our insignificant speck of a planet is spinning and circling its sun, and every star and particle and gaseous cloud is whirling, expanding, contracting. To deal with this multiplicity of gyration, scientists need sophisticated tools to study both large and small phenomena across a broad range of spectra.

In the early 1970s, scientists conceived the idea of a large scale radio telescope consisting of an array of dish antennae that could be moved — reconfigured — to allow the study of diverse bands of the spectrum.

It proved to be a workable idea, and from 1973 to 1980, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory built it on the Plains of San Agustin in southwestern New Mexico. If you drive an hour south of Albuquerque to Socorro, then head 50 miles west on Route 60, you can see the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA).

NM Very Large Array Brad Nixon 010 (640x454)

That, friends, is Big Science.

The VLA consists of 27 radio antennae, each 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. They’re mounted on rails so that they can be positioned in a large variety of configurations according to the wavelength under study at any time. Sometimes (as when we visited), they’re relatively widespread, and sometimes they’re more tightly bunched.

NM Very Large Array Brad Nixon 006 (534x640)

Without going into detail, and as you may already know, the antennae are electronically linked to form one large radio telescope. For us laypeople, it’s simply impressive to pull off near the point at which one of the three arms of the Array rail system crosses Route 60 to admire the scale of the installation. It’s a long way to go, but it’s the only thing quite like it on earth. We planned our route into the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico so that we could get a look at the VLA.

NM VLA MSV2 Brad Nixon 009 straight (480x640)

You can visit the site and take a self-guided tour. Details are available at the VLA website, HERE. You can take an interesting virtual tour of the VLA HERE.

There is nothing in the immediate vicinity in the way of food, gas, etc. You can, though, drive another few miles west, bear right at Datil and continue until you reach Pie Town. Why? To get pie, of course!

Pie Town Marcy Vincent 014 (462x640)

Pie-O-Neer Pies is famous for its tasty pies. We’d heard and read about Pie-O-Neer, and planned our route to take advantage of the opportunity to combine deep dish antennae with a treat from Pie-O-Neer. Unfortunately, we arrived just minutes after they’d closed, leaving me to sit on the front porch and commiserate on the absence of pie with the only inhabitant of the place we could find.

Pie Town Marcy Vincent 013 (640x480)

From the satisfied look on his face, I suspect he’d already had his pie that day, but we left hungry.

Have you been to Pie Town? How was the pie?

Photographs of the VLA and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. Pietown photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.



  1. Why am I hearing, “Bye bye missed American pie…” (Ok so it’s not a direct quote but still…)


    • ! Wish I’d thought of that. We’ve never forgotten that disappointing moment. A funny song helps.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am sorry that you didn’t get any pie though! It looked like a really cool place! However, at least you found some good company!


      • I’m betting that dog already had his pie, or was going to get leftovers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, he obviously was not a stupid dog!


      • But he’s not a ZEBRA. Why are Rochester teams the Zebras? Any idea?

        Liked by 1 person

      • There are two different stories. The one I’ve heard the most seems logical. At one time Rochester served as a winter quarters for circus animal for Ringling Brothers (I believe) and possibly also Barnum and Bailey. There were zebras included among those animals and indeed I know of a farm that still has zebras and camels! That farm is actually in between Rochester and Akron. As an aside, Peru, Indiana is a big circus town and still puts on a big amateur circus every year.

        As for the other story about the Zebras, I think it had something to do with the material available for uniforms. One of my coworkers knows that story, but unfortunately he isn’t here today for me to ask him about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Now that’s interesting. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yw. When I’m able to ask my coworker about the other story I will try to relay that to you.


  3. My coworker came in for a little while. (Most of us work a flexible schedule which can get interesting, but that’s yet another story…)

    Anyway, he said that circa 1912 or 1914 the Rochester basketball team went to Semi-state. At that time their uniforms were half gold (or possibly white) and half black. The shorts were opposite block color so that the white/black or white/gold also had a white (or gold)/black pattern from top to bottom as well and the socks continued the look. There are photos from the time period but they are black/white photos. Either a radio announcer or a newspaper writer said that the Rochester team looked like a bunch of zebras running around. My co-worker thought this was prior to the schools having a mascot but then adopted the zebras from that comment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Two excellent choices! I like this one best. A typical Midwestern response: embracing an intended slight and flaunting it. Hope it’s true. Thanks a bunch to everyone at the library.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s amazing the things you can learn at the library–and not always just from books! I told my coworker you liked his version better and he got a huge smile on his face and walked off with his chest puffed out just a bit. You made his day!


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