I’ve just gotten back from New Mexico. I’d not ever been through there before. Indeed of the states nearby I’ve really only been through Nevada and flown into Phoenix a few times. For this visit, we flew into Albuquerque and then drove 80 odd miles down to a small town called Socorro. We were headed to a job fair at New Mexico Technical Institute.1
Driving through New Mexico is downright pretty. It bears a startling resemblance to many parts of Australia: dry, scrubby terrain that looks like someone has painted a series of pastel landscapes and propped them against the skyline. The long flat highways with their flickering mirages also reminded me of long cross-country drives in rural Australia. Even the towns, despite their adobe style, had that dry, dusty and quiet feel of country towns in central Australia.
After the fair, we sat in a bistro to eat, the only customers, and the server not only knew why we were in town but had a practised patter about Sorocco and all its attractions. We discovered it was green chili season and our server insisted on bringing out a chili from the kitchen and showing us how it should be prepared. Naturally everything we ordered was smothered in that hot and sweet green chili sauce. The server confessed though, that whilst Sorocco had fine chilies, the place to really go for green chilies was nearby San Antonio, or “Little San Antonio …. the original San Antonio” to distinguish it from its Texan namesake. We joked with him about how the TSA would react to a burlap sack full of chilies.
After the career fair and our late lunch it was late in the day and we were considering heading back to Albuquerque. Then my colleague Deepak discovered that the Very Large Array telescope was a mere 60 miles away on the Plains of San Augustin. So we decided to head across to it and see what there was to see.
The Array is off the beaten track and we drove through several small towns and onto smaller and smaller secondary roads.2 Eventually we crossed a cattle-grid on a road that was allegedly Highway 52 West and saw the long stretch of giant dishes scattered in a rough Y across the landscape. We pulled up to the visitor centre, a squat red brick building, with a sign, “Door might blow closed in strong winds - go around the back”, tapped to the front entrance. Barring a battered pickup, we were the only car in the lot.
The center was deserted except for an automated recording and some displays. The gift shop door was firmly closed, we’d just missed its opening hours. My head peering into the glass of the door prompted the women who was closing up to kindly offer to let us browse and buy some items. Apparently my Simon Jester in a space-suit tattoo suggested we might be the type who would buy. She was a friendly Texan who proceeded to give us the rundown on the site and what to see. This lead to a brief flurry of trying on and buying VLA swag.
We took the walking tour around the site and then the advice of the gift shop operator to drive across to see two of the dishes up close. It’s only standing near them you realize how amazing they are. It’s also then that you realize that each dish is actually moved to adjust the resolution of the images. And by moved I don’t mean the dish rotates! They physically move the whole dish, which are mounted on concrete stands, to decrease and increase the distance between each unit of the array. This adjusts the resolution of the pictures taken. Though we puzzled about it a bit at the time we couldn’t actually work out how they were moved.3
After taking some obligatory photographs we decided to head back. Driving away from the array it’s an utterly incredible view seeing the plain full of dishes stretching into the distance. I throughly encourage anyone who is nearby to make the detour to go see the Array. It’s really a once-in-a-liftime experience.