As we drove across the flat plains of San Agustin, we could see for miles in every direction. Then the antennas of Very Large Array started to appear one by one.
The Very Large Array, or VLA for short, is a radio observatory in New Mexico. The observatory area contains 27 antennas, where each dish has a diameter of 25 meters. They are moved around using rail tracks, which at one point even crosses Route 60.
This site has been featured in several science fiction movies. Most notable is the scene in “Contact” (1997) where Jodie Foster sits on the hood of her car and listens to radio wave transmissions through her headphones.
Unfortunately that iconic scene is quite bogus. Radio astronomers don’t really listen to cosmic signals with audio headphones, the antennas were specifically pointed to get a better shot and the number of dishes were increased by CGI effects.
The scenes at VLA were shot during five days in September 1996, with the “listening” scene actually filmed during heavy rain. But the control room, even though shot on a set, is a near perfect replica of the actual VLA Control Room.
The site can also be seen in Carl Sagan’s 1980 documentary “Cosmos” and several movies such as “2010”, “The Arrival”, “Independence Day” and “Terminator Salvation”.