Ride Report: Day 14

Day 14 / Thursday, September 10, 2009

It was a windy and loud night with heavy crashes of thunder. I tried to fall asleep on the picnic tables, but the wind was too strong, so I setup my tent between the tables and got some good rest. Packing up in the morning, I still didn't see anybody around and quietly left.

I spent the windy and thunderous night in this shed in an RV park close to the array site.

Entering the array site, which was built in the 70's.

Even with all the ex-military vehicles around, this is a non-defense site and is purely a science facility, thus being open to the public.

The VLA has a visitor center with a self-guided walking tour around the site. At the visitor center, an automatic video plays to explain about radio astronomy and the site's history. I thought I would be the one random person visiting the site, but there was actually a steady stream of visitors with license plates from many different states. Good to see radio astronomy being appreciated by many.

Being a science facility and not a military site, the public is free to wander the grounds with no guards around. The data from the antennas is analyzed at an operations center 50 miles away in Socorro, so the only people around were a few maintenance staff and visitors. As you walk around, signs warn visitors to seek shelter when they see dark clouds forming as lightning is a real danger on the open grounds.

Even though the site may look devoid of human contact, the antennas were actually constantly on the move by remote operators. The 82 ft dishes can swivel and rotate to track an object across the sky as the Earth spins on its axis. It was quite amazing to be right under one of the 230 ton dishes as it switched from looking at the horizon to straight up at the sky. It moved quite gracefully and it was quite a show of human technical achievement to see many of the closely spaced antennas moving in unison.

Taking a self-guided walking tour of the facility.

One of the 27 antennas that the public is allowed to walk up to. The dish is 82 ft (25 meters) in diameter and is fully mobile to point at any direction and to follow a radio source across the sky as the earth rotates. The antennas were constantly moving while I was there.

The primary purpose of these antenna is not to listen to radio sources from space but actually to capture the electromagnetic radiation (also known as light) and produce images of objects that emit radio waves, like the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

The base of the antenna, when unbolted, can be lifted and allows the antenna to be moved to different configurations across the site as all the antenna can act as one big radio antenna depending on what is being observed.

Sculpture depicting the Y-shape of the array site. The antenna are periodically moved back and forth on rails to provide different resolutions. At its widest configuration, the array can simulate a single dish that is 22 miles in diameter.

Detailed view of the underside of a dish, showing its rotating mechanism.

One of the rail transporters that is used to move the antennas around.

I rode up to the huge Antenna Assembly Building, where the antennas are serviced and where they were built when the site was commissioned in the 1970s for a cost of $78 million. This was as close as I was going to get to massive assembly buildings, as I really want to see the Space Shuttle's gargantuan Vehicle Assembly Building down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

I guess my interest in radio astronomy started when I visited the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Bombay, India as part of a high school science field trip and I hope it continues with a visit to the next generation of radio telescopes at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

At the Antenna Assembly Building, where servicing and construction takes place. This is as close as I'll get to the Shuttle's Vehicle Assembly Building down in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Hoping to see a launch before the program ends.

Looking down the main rail line of the array with all the dishes pointed up.

I had good timing as the antenna were all bunched up closely making for some nice shots instead of being spread apart.

After getting my fill of space thrills, I headed back west on US-60 to catch NM-12 to US-180 down to Silver City. I was once again glad I was staying on pavement as I rode through a couple of fast-moving heavy downpours, which probably turned any off-road trails into mud. The views through Gila National Forest were nice, especially as the road twistied up beneath the San Francisco Mountains, named much before the city in California to honor St. Francis of Assisi. The forest area also houses the Gila Wilderness, being the first so designated place in 1924 in order to preserve natural environment from being modified by human activity.

Continuing on south on NM-12 heading to Silver City through the Gila National Forest.

Good thing I decided to stay on pavement as daily afternoon thunderstorms were becoming the norm and New Mexico is famous for its dirt roads that turn into mud when wet.

New Mexico's storms are also known to be fast moving. Heavy rain above, bright sunshine here...

And heavy rain again. Click image for high resolution image of the panorama.

Nice views riding through Gila National Forest.

Wee, fun twisties.

As I reached Silver City, obviously a town with mining at its core, the dark rain clouds I had ran through earlier had followed me south and since I wanted to camp once more before the end of the trip, I continued on south to Deming. South of the city, US-180 crosses a high altitude desert at 4,000 ft and is arrow-straight for 30 miles. Signs on the road warned of extreme cross-winds and possible dust storms causing zero visibility. I was more concerned with the lightning I saw in the fast moving clouds. The view was so clear that I could see a small mountain in Deming the whole way down US-180. I thought I could camp at Rockhound State Park, at the base of that mountain, but as I got near Deming, the rain clouds were closing in and just as I pulled up to a motel, the skies opened and a heavy intense storm ensued for the next two hours with a beautiful lightning show. There was too much water spray to get any photos, but it was quite entertaining to see the regular bright flashes of light dancing across the horizon.

Rainbow over Silver City with rain clouds hovering about.

I wanted to camp one last night before reaching the Mexican border tomorrow and seeing this black mass, I decided to head closer to the border to avoid the rains.

Zero visibility warning, that is during dust storms across the open US 180 heading south to Deming from Silver City.

They really psyche you out with all the warning signs, but with that dark clouds up ahead, it's probably appropriate.

Fast moving rain across the desert.

I was hoping to camp at Rock Hound State Park, south of Deming, at the base of the mountain at the bottom right in this picture. The road is so straight that I could see this mountain almost the whole way from Silver City.

But as I got closer, this cloud had settled in at the top and lightning was striking around the rainbow and the black mass of clouds had followed me all the way south. Just as I checked in to a motel, the skies opened and the deluge ensued with a beautiful lightning storm.

Next: Day 15, Into Mexico

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