The VLA Turns 40

By Dave Finley
Public Information Officer
National Radio Astronomy Observatory

On Saturday, October 10, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) will mark exactly 40 years since the dedication of the Very Large Array — a scientific icon that has greatly advanced our understanding of the Universe.

At the beginning of this year, we had started planning to celebrate this anniversary with a large public ceremony on the Plains of San Agustin, with the VLA’s giant, 230-ton dish antennas as the backdrop. We hoped to host a celebration that would at least match the 1980 dedication ceremony that drew hundreds of scientists, government officials, and members of the public.

The COVID-19 outbreak ended those plans, forcing us to close the VLA to the public, but we couldn’t let the occasion go unmarked. This year’s celebration will be online, starting at 9:00 a.m., Mountain Daylight Time, on Saturday. The event will include two virtual tours of the VLA along with presentations on the VLA’s history, supporting an observatory, the VLA Sky Survey, and NRAO’s plans for the future with the Next Generation VLA. Details of the online event are at:

In the four decades since that ceremony in 1980, the VLA has compiled an enviable record of scientific achievement. Its flexibility as a research instrument has allowed it to make discoveries across the breadth of astronomical specialties, ranging from studies of the Sun and planets in our own Solar System to galaxies many billions of light-years distant, and nearly everything in between.

Radio astronomy, which got its start with Karl Jansky’s 1932 serendipitous discovery of radio waves coming from the center of the Milky Way, had come a long way by the 1960s. In that decade, radio telescopes were responsible for discovering quasars, pulsars, and the cosmic microwave background – the remnant radiation from the Big Bang.

However, the big need was for more resolving power – the ability to see fine detail – an ability in which the large single-dish radio telescopes of that era were severely limited.  It became clear to the leadership of NRAO that the future required using the interferometric techniques developed in Britain by Sir Martin Ryle, for which he received the Nobel Prize. NRAO scientists began working on the concept that ultimately would become the VLA in 1962.

The New Mexico connection to the project came as NRAO began seeking a location suitable for a radio telescope system that would incorporate multiple large antennas and span a territory more than 20 miles across. The site-selection process began with inspections that ran from 1965 to 1969. By a process that included map inspections, aerial photos and reconnaissance, and ultimately ground visits, the list of candidate sites was narrowed from 89 down to four finalists.

The first NRAO visit to the Plains of San Agustin, in the high desert of west-central New Mexico, came in February of 1966. According to one of the participants, the site immediately impressed the team. In a written report in May of that year, they called it “an excellent potential site.”

In the meantime, NRAO was developing the hardware and software for the VLA at the observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, building a prototype called the Green Bank Interferometer. Also, the project began working its way through the proposal and approval processes at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the funding agency.

In 1972, the final selection of the VLA site was approved, the project was approved by Congress, and the NSF authorized NRAO to proceed with construction. The following year saw NRAO open an office in Magdalena and, late in the year, take possession of the central site, where the VLA’s buildings now are located.

The dedication ceremony capped a construction project that was completed on budget and a year ahead of schedule, and began an era that provided the world’s astronomers with unmatched research capabilities. The scientific payoff was tremendous, yielding discoveries that surprised even those who had designed the VLA. One astronomer summed up the scientific impact by saying, “You could point the thing at anything and learn something no one knew before.”

As the VLA racked up important discoveries in the years that followed, technology was advancing rapidly, and by the mid-1990s it became apparent that newer technology could greatly increase the power of the VLA as a scientific tool. In 2001, the NSF approved an expansion project that replaced the original, 1970s-era electronics with state-of-the-art equipment, and work began the following year. With funding from the NSF, Canada, and Mexico, this project turned the VLA into a completely new and vastly more capable research instrument. That status was recognized by a rededication ceremony in 2012 that renamed it the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, honoring the founder of radio astronomy.

The scientific importance of the VLA, along with the stunning visual impact of those giant dish antennas rising out of the desert, have attracted world-wide attention from filmmakers, photographers, writers, and entertainers. The VLA had a leading role in the 1997 Warner Brothers film “Contact,” and in several other feature films and TV productions. It has been a highly-sought backdrop for everything from music videos to car commercials, and is a popular subject for photographers.

Since its inception, the VLA has remained at the forefront of science, enabling discoveries that addressed some of the biggest unanswered questions in astronomy. Today, NRAO plans to continue providing advanced tools for frontier science by developing the Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA). The ngVLA will build on the proud legacy of the VLA – and the hundreds of staff members who have supported the VLA over the past decades– to help unravel the scientific mysteries that will challenge the coming generations of astronomers.

Buy Planet Mars!

The other day I was looking through my email offers from Groupon (an online site that offers discounted goods and services), and was caught by the headline offer: Buy Planet Mars!

Wow, I thought to myself, I’d really love to own Planet Mars! I mean, what better investment for a woman who loves astronomy than to buy Planet Mars? I didn’t even realize it was for sale! Probably out of my price range, but still – owning Planet Mars!! I had to click the link.

Needless to say, when I got to the sale page I was rather disappointed to discover that it wasn’t the whole PLANET for sale, I could only buy one-acre parcels of Planet Mars. Darn. But on the other hand, the land was pretty cheap, only $15 an acre (original value $35). I’d get a deed, a map with the location of my land, and a special Planet Mars Info eBook.  Such a deal! I mean seriously, land for $15 an acre? You can’t even buy land in undeveloped-no-where-New-Mexico for that price.

So what are talking here, just how many acres on Planet Mars? My Google search returned a figure of about 35.5 billion acres. 35.5 billion times $15…..WT…didn’t even need to break out my calculator to know we’re talking in the ballpark of $52 billion. Dang, I don’t have it. Bill Gates could buy Planet Mars and only be down less than half of his purported net worth of $110 billion. Gates has given just about a Planet Mars’ worth of money to charity since 1994 (so much better for those of us here on Earth that he has supported important causes here rather than invest in Planet Mars.)

I figure Elon Musk could also by Planet Mars, although it would put him back a lot more than Gates. Musk’s estimated value is more on the order of $66 billion; buying Planet Mars would definitely put a crimp in his lifestyle.

Then I read the fine print on the offer – only one acre per person. It was at this point that I really had to give up my dream of buying Planet Mars through Groupon. Sigh.

But of course, I knew I never could have bought Planet Mars, even if I did have tens of billions of dollars of expendable income. In 1967 the USA, UK, and then Soviet Union created a treaty covering the use and exploitation of outer space, the Moon, and other celestial bodies, signed by more than 100 nations. Bottom line of this treaty is, nobody can claim ownership of the space around us or of any celestial bodies, including Planet Mars. Even with the 2015 modification of the treaty in the SPACEAct of 2015 that allows the ownership of materials extracted from celestial bodies, you can’t own the celestial body itself. Phew! So I didn’t miss out on an incredible (and non-affordable for me) deal!

Turns out owning Planet Mars is nothing more than a novelty item, no different from the hoaxers who sell land on the Moon and Uranus. That’s right, someone out there sells acres of land on an icy, gassy planet that doesn’t even have a solid surface. But ya know, if buying these things as novelty gifts turns your crank, I say go for it! Then talk to me, I’m thinking of starting a business selling cubic kilometers of pretty pink hydrogen gas in the Orion Nebula…

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Citizen Science

I’ve talked Citizen Science projects in a couple of previous blog posts, here and here.  That’s great for those who have time on their hands to participate, but what if your idle time is limited? That’s where projects like Einstein@Home come in; they don’t require your idle time, but rather, your computer’s idle time. This is a great choice for those of us who want to make a contribution to scientific research and discovery, but lack the free time it takes to do it.

Einstein@Home puts your computer to work when you’re not using it, to search for weak electromagnetic signals emitted by pulsars (spinning neutron stars), using data from several sources. To date, volunteers have discovered about fifty new neutron stars, and are expected to discover many more. The long term goal is to detect gravitational-wave emission from pulsars.

To participate, you need to sign up for an account at the Einstein@home website, then download the necessary software your computer will run to crunch the data that will be supplied.

This is just one of many projects in which you lend your computer’s idle time to reduce data and crunch the numbers. Check out the links below for lists of projects to get involved in, and put your computer’s down time to good use!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Starlink Satellites Used for the First Time

By Shelbi Etscorn

A few months ago, AstroDaily shared with you the skinny on the Starlink satellites being launched by SpaceX, the company run by Elon Musk who recently sent and brought back two astronauts to the International Space Station. The goal of these satellites is to offer high speed internet access to people all over the world, even the places with notoriously poor access. Our post also mentioned that anyone can sign up to test run the service, but just recently the first use of the technology was disclosed by SpaceX and the results of that initial use in the field are both heartwarming and thrilling.

Firefighters currently fighting wildfires in remote areas in Washington state have been able to use the high speed internet provided by Starlink satellites with great success. According to a CNBC article on the subject, Washington firefighters were given seven terminals to use which they set up in areas where fires had destroyed infrastructure including any internet service.

In the article, Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department’s IT division was quoted as saying, “I have never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable.” These terminals have brought internet access to the places that need it most, and they aren’t only being used as communication for firefighters.

Families who have been forced to evacuate have been allowed to connect to the Wi-Fi, giving them the precious opportunity to reach their frantic loved ones and assure them they are well. They’ve also been able to file insurance claims and get the ball rolling on getting their life back to a semblance of normal after having lost so much. Children have even been able to connect to the internet so they can still attend their classes, which as of late have largely been held virtually.

The news is exciting not only because of how well this initial test has been reported to have worked, but also for the relief and aid it has given to these people who are probably going through some of the worst days of their lives. In a world that has now moved almost entirely online, it is more important than ever that people have access to reliable, high-speed internet just so they can do the things required for day-to-day life. Now I’m not saying Elon could have predicted this when he started launching Starlink satellites or that he had anything to do with the pandemic to create a need for the internet his satellites provide, but I am saying that would make a heck of a movie! And I am excited to see what other applications the internet provided by these satellites has to offer!

Draco’s Dark Magic

Looking to the north when the sky is dark, we may be in for a little light show on the night of October 6th. Much like Draco Malfoy casting a verdimillious charm, shooting green sparks from the tip of his wand, the constellation Draco may dazzle us with a greater than average number of shooting stars coming from its radiant. (OK, so this reference is a bit of a stretch but I couldn’t resist…)

The Draconids are one of the less spectacular annual meteor showers, yielding only 2 to 3 meteors per hour on average. However, according to Jérémie Vaubaillon of the Institute for Celestial Mechanics and Computation of Ephemerides, this year may be different.  Since we will be passing close to not just one but two different debris trails left behind by comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, the number of meteors we might see per hour goes from 2 up to 10. Admittedly, 10 per hour is not all that fantastic either; we’ve moved from underwhelming to whelming.

This shower is unusual in that it’s best viewed early in the evening rather than after midnight, like most of the annual meteor showers. This is great news, because the 83% illuminated waning gibbous Moon, which will make the fairly faint Draconid meteors hard to see, rises around 9:45 PM MDT. We’ll have about two hours of dark skies to do our observing. For more information on meteor showers in general, check our previous blog post.

While you’re waiting for Draco’s verdimillious magic, why not test your visual acuity and sensitivity with these challenges straight from Professor Sinistra’s astronomy class:

Separate Mizar/Alcor
The middle star at the bend in the Big Dipper’s handle is actually two stars, a naked eye binary separated by 11.8 minutes of arc. This pair is not only the first double star discovered (1617), but the first to be photographed with a telescope (1857). Those with keen vision should be able to separate objects 7 or 8 degrees apart, so separating Mizar and Alcor should be an easy task.

Find the Double Cluster
The double cluster is two groups of white supergiant stars believed to be formed from the same cloud of gas and dust. Each of these open star clusters contains 300 – 400 stars that are loosely gravitationally bound. In fairly dark skies this is a naked-eye object, you would see it as a fuzzy patch; if you’re observing from a location with light polluted skies, you will need a pair of binoculars to see these clusters. The double cluster can be found between the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus; use the sky chart below to locate it.

Find the Andromeda Galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy is a huge spiral galaxy much like our own Milky Way. At 2.5 million light years away, this is the most distant object you can see with your naked eye. Again, you will need to be in a fairly dark sky location to see this object without the aid of binoculars. Use the sky chart below to help locate this object, which will appear as a faint fuzzy patch.

So tomorrow night drag out your lawn chairs and a blanket or two, and spend a couple of hours searching for meteors, testing your vision, and enjoying the beauty of the night sky.

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Shine On, Harvest Moon!

Did you happen to catch the full Moon rising last night? It was a beauty! If you missed it, try again tonight, as it will rise during nautical twilight and appear to be nearly full. The Moon rose before astronomical twilight and was nearly full the night before last night’s Harvest Moon as well. Why does this happen?

Harvest Moon (full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox) rising over the Quebradas in Socorro on October 1, 2020. The Moon appears orange when it’s this close to the horizon because of the way the light is scattered, as explained in this previous blog post.

Normally the Moon rises about 50 minutes later each day. But near the autumnal equinox when the ecliptic (an imaginary line in the sky that marks the annual path of the Sun) and horizon form a narrow angle, the Moon rises only 25-30 minutes later each day for several days in a row. In addition, on the days before and after the full Moon, it’s only about 1° or 2° less illuminated, as illustrated in the LunaSolCal print screens below.

If you observe the nearly-full Moon tonight you’ll be in for an extra treat – Mars will be nestled close by, only about 1.5° away. You can measure the approximate distance between the Moon and Mars using your pinky, as shown in the sky chart below. If you extend your arm out fully in front of you, your pinky will cover about 1° of the sky. Therefore, the Moon and Mars will be about a pinky-and-a-half apart. For a reminder of how to measure distances in the sky using your hands, check out this previous blog post.

If you’re up before sunrise, look to the east to find the planet Venus, which rises at about 4 AM. Venus will be easy to pick out because at a magnitude of -4 it is brighter than any other planet or star you can see in the sky. (Check out the end of this previous blog post for a brief explanation of stellar magnitude.) This morning I did a little experiment to see how close to sunrise I could still see Venus in the ever-brightening sky. Venus was easy to pick out at 6:30 AM, as was the 1.6 magnitude star Regulus in the constellation Leo a half-degree below it. If you look tomorrow morning, Venus will appear about a half-degree below Regulus, and will continue to move away from the star at the rate of about a degree per day.

Venus was still just barely visible at 6:50 AM toward the end of civil twilight, 15 minutes before sunrise. In reality, it probably would have been pretty hard for me to pick Venus out of the bright sky had I not started watching it when it was easy to find.

While you’re out looking for Venus in the pre-dawn sky, look for the constellation Orion as well. It will be easily visible into the beginning of civil twilight, appearing high in the sky to the south.

Eyes to the Skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

October Skies

by Jon Spargo

All Sci-Fi references aside, the red planet will be a scant 38,547,383 miles from Earth on October 6th. In recent times, it has been closer to Earth only in 2003 and 2018. You can celebrate “Opposition” from the Sun on the 13th, when Mars will be 38,959,973 miles from Earth. What makes this year’s appearance special is that Mars will be well north of its sky position in 2018. During this month, its peak magnitude will be -2.6, briefly outshining Jupiter. It will be ideally placed for viewing surface features. So, break out your telescopes and go for it! Mars will not be this close to us again until 2035.

Jupiter and Saturn will continue to dominate the early evening sky. The magnitudes of both planets fade slightly by the end of the month. Both are still well placed for telescopic observations of moons and rings. Both planets reach eastern quadrature late this month which means they cast shadows to the east. This will enhance viewing of eclipses of Jupiter’s moons and shadows from Saturn’s rings.

Early-morning sky watchers will be rewarded as brilliant Venus still rises at least 3 hours before the Sun. Shining at magnitude -4.1, its visible phase increases from 72 to 81 percent of its cloudy atmosphere. Tiny Mercury will not be visible to us this month.

The Moon will be full on the 1st, last quarter on the 10th, new on the 16th, first quarter on the 23rd, and full again on the 31st. So, for Halloween, we’ll have a “Blue Moon” which is two full Moons in one month. It also happens that the full Moon on the 1st will be the “Harvest Moon.” The Harvest Moon is the full Moon nearest to the equinox which was September 22nd.

Looking east on the mornings of October 13 and 14, about an hour before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will visit brilliant Venus.

Looking south-southwest on the night of the 22nd, the nearly first quarter Moon can be found just below and about halfway between Jupiter and Saturn.

Looking east on the 29th, one hour after sunset, the nearly full Moon will be just below the red planet Mars.

Stay safe and Clear Skies!

MRO Inquirer October Newsletter

How does Halloween have its roots in astronomy? How smooth does the surface of the primary mirror in an MRO Interferometer telescope have to be? Who is that new guy we’ve seen around New Mexico Tech’s Department of Physics, and what does he have to do with MROI?

You can find out the answers to all of these questions and more in the MRO Department of Outreach and Communications’ monthly newsletter. The October issue of the MRO Inquirer, which features articles about the topics above, will be sent out to members of the Friends of MRO at the end of this week; early and direct delivery of MRO’s monthly newsletter is one of the perks of membership. If you’re not a member of our Friends group yet, don’t despair – our newsletters are released to the public in the middle of each month.

We kindly ask that you consider becoming a Friend of MRO and support the work the MRO Outreach team is doing. Along with publishing a monthly newsletter, the Outreach Department produces the Astro Daily articles and is active on all social media platforms, sharing our love of astronomy with the local community and beyond. While our monthly public star parties and seasonal observatory public tours are on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, we expect to be able to offer virtual streaming star parties and observatory tours in the near future. Your membership contribution would help support these endeavors, and make you a vital part of our mission to develop education and outreach programs, and to expand the frontiers of astrophysical research.

If you are interested in learning more about Friends of MRO, please follow this link.

The Bad Astronomer

Today I’d like to give a shout out to one of my favorite astronomy writers and educators, the self-dubbed “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait. Tomorrow is Phil’s birthday, so warm birthday wishes are in order. If you’re not familiar with Phil, read on!

Phil started his career in astronomy as an avid amateur, observing the night sky with his own telescopes. He went on to earn a PhD in astronomy from the University of Virginia (UVa) in 1994, where he also taught beginning astronomy courses and astronomy labs. He branched out into public education by holding Public Nights at the UVa’s observatory, where he honed his skills of interacting with the public and answering their questions about astronomy. In his Education and Public Outreach role for the Physics and Astronomy department at Sonoma State University, he worked on a variety of NASA-sponsored public outreach programs including those for the Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope and XMM-Newton. He went on to work on NASA’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to help calibrate the STIS by analyzing test images to determine its level of functioning. He is well known for his website “Bad Astronomy” (ca. 1999 – 2006) where he debunks some of the misinformation that runs rampant on the internet, and, as he puts it, “…airs out myth and misconceptions in astronomy and related topics”. He has authored three popular books on astronomy, has appeared on multiple documentary series, and currently writes an extremely entertaining and informative blog.

On the subject of “Bad Astronomy”, I come across many examples in the media fairly frequently. Most recently, I read an article about Saturn being well-placed for observations during August, having reached opposition in late July. I have no complaints about the contents of the article, it was all good information. But the header image they used for the article is a different matter! Someone (I’m betting some design staff, not the author) chose a striking graphic of a fictitious rocky planet with rings and a bunch of moons from Shutterstock rather than use an actual image of Saturn. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very cool graphic. My problem with this kind of depiction is that there could be folks out there who think they are looking at an actual image of the gas giant Saturn, rather than an artist’s conception of a ringed planet with a rocky surface. Perhaps I’m just splitting hairs, but for me this misleading graphic puts a stamp of “misinformation” on an otherwise nice article. You can see it yourself at this link.

I’ll share some other examples of bad astronomy and misinformation in future posts. Until then, I encourage you to check out Phil Plait’s old website Bad Astronomy and his new Bad Astronomy blog, I think you’ll be glad you did!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

It’s a Zoo Out There!

Last month in our Comet Hunter article we talked about some of the opportunities for we astronomy buffs to contribute to some real science projects by becoming citizen scientists for NASA and other organizations. Today I’d like to highlight one of my favorite projects, Zooniverse’s Galaxy Zoo. If you’re good at distinguishing subtle shapes and faint features in fuzzy blobs, then this may just be the project for you!

More than one million folks worldwide have contributed to people-powered research projects offered by Zooniverse. One need not have any specialized training or knowledge to become a part of the Galaxy Zoo team, just the ability to access the Galaxy Zoo website and have a decent computer monitor with a good enough view of the galaxy images to make some feature determinations.

Today’s Galaxy Zoo is a spin off from a galaxy classification project initiated by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) team back in 2007. The SDSS dataset was huge – it contained images of over 100 million galaxies – and would have taken the team scientists alone far too long to sift through. Then they had the idea to engage the public in sifting through the data with hopes of relieving the project scientists from doing some of the more straightforward galaxy classification work. They were pleasantly surprised at the result; over 50 million galaxy classifications were submitted by the 150,000 citizen scientists working on the project in the first year. This meant that each galaxy in the survey had classifications submitted by multiple individuals, which was the perfect measuring stick to determine the accuracy of the classification – majority rules.

Since that first round over a decade ago that focused on SDSS data only, the project has included data from a myriad of sources, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the UK Infrared Telescope. The current iteration of the project contains data from the Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey (DECaLS). DECaLS is ten times more sensitive to light than that the SDSS instruments were, so the current images contain much more detail than the first images did.

Similar to the NASA Citizen Science Projects, the Zooniverse offers projects in many scientific disciplines beyond astronomy. If Galaxy Zoo doesn’t sound like the right project for you, check out the Zooniverse project page as well as our Comet Hunter article for other ideas on how to take part in some cutting edge research and contribute to real scientific discoveries.

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications