SOCORRO, N.M. (KRQE) – Big changes are coming to the Very Large Array in Socorro County, doing away with the VLA as we know it all in the name of science. “It’s a gem just right here in our own backyard,” said Patricia Henning, Director of the VLA for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “Astronomers all over the planet, literally, want to use it.”
Made up of 27 large antennas each weighing 230 tons, the VLA is a radio telescope that helps scientists explore some of life’s most fascinating questions.
“People have always been interested in the sky, right? As long as there have been people, we’ve been looking at the sky and wondering what’s up there and what’s our place in it,” said Henning. “Each of these antennas collects nationally occurring energy from things in the universe like stars, the sun and galaxies and all sorts of different things.”
It helps us learn about the universe. But the facility is in need of an upgrade. “The VLA is fantastic and it’s still doing great science, it is over 40 years old now,” said Henning. “We need to look into the future and there’s so much more that we can do with an upgraded facility.”
Plans are underway for what’s called the Next Generation VLA, or ngVLA. The antennas will have a new design and there will be 263 of them instead of 27. “It’ll act like one huge telescope with elements spread out all the way across the U.S.,” said Henning.
With antennas concentrated in New Mexico, they will also be placed in places from Hawaii all the way to New Hampshire. “It will have 10 times the sensitivity as the VLA and give us 10 times sharper images on the sky,” she said.
The more than $2 billion project is in the design phase with the design of the new antenna just getting approved, clearing the way for a prototype to be built. They’re expecting the ngVLA to bring in more tourists and school classes. Henning hopes it will excite New Mexicans while also opening new doors for science.
“I think it will, I hope really be a point of pride for New Mexicans that this fantastic facility is here,” she said. “Really looking at more into the formation of stars and planets. Also studying pulsars in great depth and testing general relativity. It’s a huge, huge science case…we’ll be able to study with a very modern instrument, looking in new ways, getting into the details of how do stars really form? It’s going to be great for that.”
Henning said they’d like to break ground on construction for the ngVLA by the end of the decade. Its website said the goal is to have the facility in full operation by 2035. In the meantime, the NRAO encourages people to visit the VLA. You can find details on visiting hours here.