Ever since Jodi Foster starred in the movie “Contact” I have wanted to see the radio telescopes in person. The observatory was only a few miles off the road so we decided to go for it. The site consists of 27 independent radio antennae, each of which has a dish diameter of 25 meters (82 feet).
The antennas are arrayed along the three arms of a Y-shape (each of which measures 21 km/13 miles long). Using the railroad tracks that follow each of these arms – and that, at one point, intersect with U.S. Route 60 at a level crossing – and a specially designed lifting locomotive, the antennas can be physically relocated to a number of prepared positions.
There are four commonly used configurations, designated A (the largest) through D (the tightest, when all the dishes are within 600 m of the center point). The observatory normally cycles through all the various possible configurations (including several hybrids) every 16 months: in other words, once the massive efforts needed to move two dozen 230-ton highly sensitive scientific instruments have been made, the antennas are not moved again for a period of three to four months.
The movie was filmed when the dishes were in the tightest configuration. When we saw them, they were spread out over the 13 miles.
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Oh Jodie, you are quite the dish.