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, some 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 Augustin in southwestern New Mexico. If you drive an hour south of Albuequerque to Socorro, then head 50 miles west on Route 60, you can see the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA).
This, 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.
Without going into detail, and as you probably 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 them. 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.
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-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 with the only inhabitant of the place we could find.
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?
© Brad Nixon 2016. Pietown photos courtesy M. Vincent, all rights reserved.