Very Large Array

By Ann Vallee

March 11, 2019

Very Large Array

While traveling in New Mexico, I made a pilgrimage to the high desert to see the Karl G. Jansky Array, curious to witness a telescope as big as a valley.

An hour up an empty road, I come to a towering dish antenna, and then another and another, lined up like cairns across the sprawling plain. I follow them to a little museum, where I learn the array consists of 27 such antennas, each more than 80 feet across, set along railroad tracks so they can be pulled in close together or spread out for miles among the grazing cattle and sagebrush—that’s how you focus a telescope that’s also a landscape.

I also learn about the radio waves that wash invisibly over us, and which the antennas gather in their parabolic dishes—emissions from quasars, supernovas, and other celestial objects, accompanied by the constant incantations of cosmic background radiation, relic of the Big Bang, murmuring our origin story.

I buy astronaut ice cream in the gift shop and walk out into the desert to stand below the nearest antennas, below the uninterrupted sky. The freeze-dried sweet melts on my tongue like a wafer. My attention is caught in the sound of moving gears, and I look up to see an antenna adjusting its position. It lifts its bowl toward the heavens, then waits to receive each data point, the information like alms from the universe.

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