Perhaps we’ve never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there’s no sign of intelligent life. -Neil deGrasse Tyson
July is just around the corner. And that means the Mekemson household will soon be watching Independence Day. Again. Peggy has her favorites. Some movies, like Willow, I swear we have watched 30 times. And I don’t know if I can count how many times August Rush, the movie about the little boy who finds his parents through music, has appeared on our TV screen. Each viewing guarantees Peggy will get out her Martin and strum it.
But Independence Day has a special twist. July 5th is Peggy’s Birthday and the movie kicks off her Birthday Week, during which “whatever Peggy wants, Peggy gets.” (Remember Whatever Lola Wants?) If it appears she is a little spoiled, well yes. But Peggy has earned it— and she spoils me, too.
You’ve probably seen Independence Day. Nasty aliens invade the world with the intent of wiping out humanity and sucking up all of the earth’s goodies. The movie starts with a scientist in a lab whiling away the wee hours of the morning practicing his golf game by sinking putts in a glass. Suddenly the computer screen that monitors messages from outer space goes bonkers. And everything changes.
Here’s the point of my little detour into the world of Science Fiction: The scientist is working at the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico, which is the subject of today’s post. An even more famous movie including the VLA is in the Jodie Foster flick, Contact, based on the book written by Carl Sagan where humanity first meets up with aliens. SETI, the search for extra terrestrial intelligence, is a subject that has fired the imagination of much of the world’s population, a fact that Hollywood has taken to heart, and the bank.
The scientists at VLA have mixed feelings about the movie depiction of their giant radio telescopes being used in the search for aliens. On the one hand, movies increase public awareness about the facility, and this awareness can be translated into increased funding. On the other hand, the VLA is used for hard science. Instead of searching for little green men, it is used for unlocking the secrets of quasars, pulsars, black holes, the sun, the Milky Way Galaxy, and numerous other astronomical phenomena including the very beginning of the Universe. Not bad, even if they aren’t talking to ET on the side.
Besides, as one astrophysicist at the facility told Peggy and me, if an alien civilization has mastered the difficulties involved in traveling/communicating over the vastness of time and space, they would be to us like we are to ants. Why bother with checking in or stopping for a visit. The tongue-in-cheek quote at the top from the astronomer and popularizer of science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, reflects this perspective.
In my last post, I passed by VLA as I zipped down New Mexico 60 from Pie Town and the Continental Divide heading east on my bike. I vowed I would be back, which was a vow Peggy and I kept as we retraced my route through the area. We were lucky. We arrived on the first Sunday in April, which just happened to be VLA’s annual open house. The red carpet was rolled out.
Scientists were everywhere— answering questions, leading tours and being friendly. I suspect it was a command performance required by the higher-ups. Most scientists prefer to be locked away in their labs discovering things. A young post-doc from India, who is using the VLA to probe back several billion years to the beginning of time, took Peggy, me and several others on a tour of the facility.
But first I chatted with Diego Montoya, the Mayor of Magdalena, a town just down the road from the VLA. Diego wasn’t at the event in his official role, however, he was there because he had a speaking part as a third grader in Contact. As I pointed out, the VLA recognizes the importance of publicity to its well-being. Magdalena recognizes the importance of VLA as a tourist draw.
When I rode my bike by the VLA in 1989, the 27 huge radio telescopes were spread out for over 22 miles of the San Augustin Plains. When we visited a couple of months ago, it was under a mile. Given that each antenna weighs 230 tons and comes with a dish that is 82 feet in diameter, moving them is something of a challenge, to say the least. How is it accomplished? Slowly and carefully (grin). A railroad track system shaped in the form of a Y has been designed for the effort. Each arm of the Y is 13 miles long. Special trains with the power to lift and move the telescopes have been designed for the job.
Four different locations are utilized on the tracks to provide for different types of observations with the telescopes, which rotate through the locations every 16 months. Since the 27 telescopes work together as one unit, they are the equivalent of a telescope with a 22-mile diameter when extended to their farthest point! That’s like the mother of all telescopes.
The telescopes can do their job because they are extremely sensitive to radio waves, the longest waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. And how sensitive do they have to be? Consider this: Cosmic radio waves are a billion, billion, million times weaker than a cell phone signal. (Pretty hard to call home with that ET. Mom would need really big ears.) This sensitivity creates special problems. A cell phone used on the premises sounds like a very large scream (VLS?). Even the remotes for car doors create spikes on the VLA’s measuring equipment. One reason for choosing the San Augustin Plains is because of its remoteness from all things civilized. I can attest to that. The other is that it is so darn flat, which I quickly discovered bicycling across it. My floating down the Rockies came to a dramatic halt, at least for a dozen or so miles.
Messages received by the radio telescopes are sent at light speeds over fiber optic cables to the central processing unit where one of the world’s fastest computers processes the data at 16 quadrillion calculations per second— the equivalent of every person on earth (all six billion of us), doing one calculation per second on a calculator for a month, nonstop. The data is then packaged up and sent out to scientists from all over the world. Scientists compete for time on the VLA by submitting proposals. Their slots may be for an hour or days. After a year, they agree they will release their findings to the public. In terms of scientific data, the VLA has paid its way many times over.
The message from outer space to my readers is that if you get anywhere near the VLA, include it on your itinerary. Even if you only stare at the telescopes, it is a fascinating place, and there is a good visitors center chock full of info. Who knows, maybe even ET will call while you are there. Two final photos:
THE NEXT BLOG: Once again you will join Peggy and me as we continue to retrace my bike route. We will stop off at the Trinity site where the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded, visit Smokey the Bear’s birthplace and grave, and end up in Lincoln County where six guns once ruled and Billy the Kid roamed— all of that before we drop into Roswell and its weird world of UFOs.