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Very Large Array Radio Telescope Facility in New Mexico, an exciting place to visit with kids. Educational travel stop for astronomy buffs.
Very Large Array (or VLA) was definitely on my mental bucket list when we spent a week in New Mexico. But when we happened upon it in the middle of nowhere, we weren't expecting it.
And then there were the antennae… A row of antenna after antenna after antenna. You might not think it, but it was almost awe-inspiring, like something you'd see in a movie.
And well, it was in a movie… Contact to be exact. Remember that movie? Of course, we had to watch it again when we came home.
Visiting the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array is awesome with kids!
It seemed like it took forever to get from the main road all the way in to the Visitor Center at the Very Large Array. The desert is an unforgiving place, and distances are much longer than you'd think, especially when you're excited as heck to have stumbled onto something you've wanted to see for a very long time.
Once inside the Visitor Center, we purchased our tickets, along with a couple souvenirs. We walked around inside the small display space they have inside. Before we left to go out on the self-guided walking tour, we were told to turn off all of our mobile devices, including our phones and cameras. We could have them on in airplane mode to snap a photo, but then they had to be turned off.
We walked outside and past the warning sign for rattlesnakes, where we explored the Radio Sundial, the Whisper Dish Gallery (which was a LOT of fun for the boys, check out our video below), the Radio Astronomy Gallery, and then walked right up to the base of a working antenna. It's amazing how gigantic they are (94 feet tall and 82 feet in diameter).
After that, we made our way up to the observation deck where we could see inside the control building and capture amazing views of all the antennae out through the desert. There are railroad tracks for transporting these giants to their rightful spots. It was similar to and reminded me of the way they transport rockets at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It's easy to miss, but there's another parking lot for visitors to stop and view the Antenna Assembly Building. While we were there, they were working on an antenna.
What does the Very Large Array do?
It's pretty simple, actually. The telescopes all work together, covering several miles across, and they observe. Completed in 1980, they're located in a very isolated place so that they can more accurately capture cosmic radio waves without interference.
Just a few things they've discovered or studied have been ice on Mercury, black holes, the physics behind gamma ray bursts, the center of the Milky Way, and so much more. The VLA monitors the heavens both day and night.
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Visiting the Very Large Array – What to Know Before You Go
- Plan your visit. The Visitor Center is open from 8:30 am to sunset every day.
- They also have a gift shop that's open from 9am to 4pm.
- While we decided to skip the movie they play in their indoor theater (narrated by Jodie Foster), you can watch the movie, Beyond the Visible: The Story of the Very Large Array, online. There was no way Zeke would sit still for a 20 minute movie; but I highly encourage you to watch. The movie gives so much more information about the Very Large Array and the work that scientists and astronomers do.
- Bathrooms are located in the Visitor Center.
- Wear sunscreen. Better yet, wear protective clothing. Otherwise, you will roast and toast (speaking from experience).
- The walking tour is self-guided. However, if you want a guided tour, they offer 45-minute tours the first Saturday of every month. These guided tours include areas that are behind-the-scenes, and you'll have the opportunity to ask questions. They also offer guided tours to educational groups.
- Remember that all mobile devices have to be turned off (and in airplane mode when snapping pictures). And there is no cell service at all within miles of the VLA.
- Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and free for children under 17.