Visit the VLA (Very Large Array) | Explore the VLA |
VLA mid day. A view of the many receivers from the ground view.

It seems prefacing anything with the words “very large,” provides an element of unmatched intrigue that must be explored! The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) rests 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, and is no exception to this rule, attracting guests from all over the world. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory has sites and telescopes in both the United States and Chile, including the VLA. This facility was inaugurated in 1980 and sits within an ancient lakebed in the Plains of San Agustin.

The area is surrounded by mountains, which act as a natural barrier, keeping out radio interference from cities as far as hundreds of miles away. The radio astronomy telescope site consists of 27 massive dishes 82 feet in diameter, with each antenna standing 94 feet tall. They scale the desert landscape in a Y-shaped formation up to 13 miles in each direction. Amazingly, the set of immense radio dishes has been designed to function electronically as a combined single telescope that is larger than all of New York City.


Admission is free for children 17 and under, $6 for adults, and $5 for seniors 65 and over. At press time, the VLA site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Tickets should
be purchased in advance, and admission works off of a timed entry model to help with crowd control. Included with the general admission fee is access to the visitor center that showcases
current exhibits, a documentary film narrated by Jodie Foster, a half-mile outdoor self-guided walking tour, and a guided tour by a trained staff member when available. On the self-guided tour, participants can expect to view the Bracewell Radio Sundial, tour the educational galleries, and then conclude at the base of one of the working antennas on the array. Guests will also experience an observation deck on the outside staircase of the control building to get a closer look at the array itself.

The gift shop carries its own array — of science-themed apparel, gifts, souvenirs, books, posters, educational materials, and more — and is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. It also has an online gift shop. Although no pets are allowed in the visitor center or gift shop, dogs are allowed at outdoor attractions as long as they are kept on a leash that is no longer than 6 feet. The VLA staff
has an adorable pet principle policy to follow, cleverly coined B.A.R.K., which means (B)ag your pet’s waste, (A)lways leash your pet, (R)espect wildlife, and (K)now where you can go. For your electronic devices, (including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology) VLA staff ask for them to be in airplane mode and powered off during visits. The VLA is at high elevation — 7,000 feet — and, particularly in winter, can experience severe weather, which sometimes causes road closures. VLA Public Information Officer Dave Finley suggests that guests always check the website before visiting.


Researchers take a deeper look at the universe by gathering invisible light from space using radio wave technology. Seemingly counterintuitive, radio waves cannot be heard but are actually
part of the electromagnetic spectrum, just at a wavelength much longer than we can see with the naked eye. The VLA monitors our intergalactic world day and night to better understand planets,
stars, gas and dust clouds, galaxies, pulsars, and even black holes. Believe it or not, these massive 230-ton structures are mobile. They can be moved to various vantage points along 40 miles of railway track to 72 separate stations across the desert landscape at a maximum speed of just under 5 miles per hour.


As if all of that out-of-this-world technology was not already neat enough, the VLA has also been featured across several media outlets including in a Dodge commercial, the television mini-series Cosmos, feature films such as Terminator Salvation, Armageddon, Independence Day, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Most notably, the VLA served as the primary shooting location for the 1997 science fiction drama film Contact starring Jodie Foster. Hollywood had to get creative to film on location while scientists were simultaneously hard at work, as not a minute of observation could be compromised by shutting down the facility entirely to film. Lastly, Bon Jovi got in on the action in 2002, with the VLA serving as a backdrop for their music video, “Everyday,” and it was featured on their album cover.

VLA at sunset
Sunrise breaks over the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico.


When taking a day trip to the VLA, there are also a few other stops nearby that folks can tack on to the agenda. Get up close and personal with wildlife at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Preserve and the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Socorro’s Kittrel Park, also known as “Socorro Plaza,” was built in the 1880s and is a hot spot for community events and activities and is surrounded by notable parks and museums. The villages of Pie Town and Magdalena are close by and offer amazing cuisine (yes — including pie!), art and antique galleries, and rock and mineral shops.

The Kelly ghost town is a few miles from Magdalena where visitors can view remnants of the once-booming mining town that flourished from its establishment in 1879. When silver and mineral
deposits began to be depleted in the early 1930s, it drove the 3,000 townspeople to move to new opportunities elsewhere. The ghost town still currently features a Carnegie Steel head frame that stands 121 feet tall.

Visitors can also spot old mining buildings, tailing dumps, and adobe rock and ruins along both sides of the dirt road. To get to VLA, visitors may need the specific GPS coordinates (34 04’43.497N 107 37’05.819W) although there are directions on the VLA website. Cellular reception may not be available within several miles of the VLA. All roads leading to the VLA are paved.

Astronomers and engineers from all over the world want to use and explore the VLA, but you don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate this one-of-a-kind wonder. “Its status as a valuable research tool for the world’s scientists attracts those who want to see and learn about a facility that advances the frontiers of human knowledge,” says Dave. “The sight of its giant antennas in the desert is unique and the images of that sight in numerous media draw people who want to experience that sight up close.”

As the visitor center gift shop tagline reads, “Hip Hip, Array!”

Very Large Array


Story by Desiree Bustamantes | Photos Courtesy VLA

Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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