Nightscape photography at the VLA

An extended version of this post is on the EarthSky website: Awesome nightscape photos from New Mexico’s Very Large Array. It includes more images from the other astrophotographers and more details about how you can make your own images of the VLA.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, NRAO VLA, is one of the great telescopes of the world. The VLA is located just west of Magdalena, New Mexico, on US Highway 60. The cool dry air at 7000' altitude makes the VLA a wonderful site for astrophotography. It has been used as a location in feature films including the 1997 movie Contact, featuring Jodie Foster, based on the novel by Carl Segan. The ten story high, 230 ton, array antennas are a perfect symbol for humanity's exploration of the universe silhouetted against the brilliant sky.

Because of the safety issues inherent in such a large outdoor facility and the sensitivity of the telescopes to electronic interference, amateur photography is only permitted from the self guided walking tour which is only open during daylight. Nighttime photography amateur or commercial requires an approved application and payment of a large location fee.

The antennas can be deployed in configurations ranging from 22 miles in diameter (A) to a tightly packed configuration just 0.6 miles wide (D). The D configuration shows multiple antennas well, but is not accessible to the public at night.

The wider A and B configurations use an antenna location on the north arm just off of US 60 directly across from a public parking area. This is in the highway right of way, past the turn off for the visitor center when headed west, near where the north arm rail tracks cross the highway. Nighttime amateur photography is possible from here which captures the antenna against the northern sky.

Traffic on the highway is usually light late at night, but caution is advised due to the remote location. Emergency services, food, water, and other supplies are many miles away. Cell phone signals are weak and phones should be off except in emergencies. The highway right of way is wide although the terrain is rough and it is easy to fall in the dark. A fence marks the boundary of the VLA facility. A good flashlight is necessary at night, preferably with a red light.

The NRAO VLA Configurations page can be used to identify dates that the array will be in the A & B configurations. I've included Google Maps captured from this page annotated to show the location of the parking area and nearby antenna below.

close up...

Headlights from approaching cars are visible for miles. As a car approaches lighting can vary dramatically even in long exposures.

Content created: 2019-10-08 and last modified: 2019-11-22




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