NSF PR 00-37

Media contact: Amber Jones
(703) 306-1070

Program contact: Jim Breckinridge
(703) 306-1820

Scientists next week will mark the 20th
anniversary of the National Science
Foundation’s Very Large Array (VLA), the
most powerful, flexible and widely-used
radio telescope in the world. Discoveries
made by the array of 27 antennae in the
New Mexico desert have ranged from the
surprising detection of water ice on Mercury,
the planet nearest the sun, to the first
detection of radio emission from a gamma
ray burster. Its images rival the best
produced by astronomy observatories
anywhere on Earth and in space.

“Twenty years ago, the VLA’s dramatic new
capabilities marked a turning point for
astronomers,” said Rita Colwell, NSF
director. “Today it continues to advance all
branches of astronomy — and is a prime
example of how the National Science
Foundation advances science and
engineering at the frontiers.”


Antennae of the VLA in the New Mexico desert

  • Cosmic jet revealed by VLA.

    Photos courtesy of NRAO

    The VLA was used to find the first “Einstein ring” gravitational lens in 1987 and the first
    “microquasar” within the Milky Way in 1994. Over two decades, the VLA has furthered our
    understanding of active regions on the sun, the physics of superfast “cosmic jets” of material
    pouring from the hearts of distant galaxies, the mysterious central region of our own galaxy and
    the atmospheres of other stars.

    The results of research conducted with the array fill thousands of pages in numerous scientific
    journals and are cited throughout modern astronomy textbooks. In addition to these
    accomplishments, the VLA has served as a prime tool for training young astronomers. More than
    200 Ph.D. degrees awarded at U.S. and foreign universities have been based on dissertation
    research using its data.

    The telescope’s 20th anniversary will be marked May 30, 2000, in a ceremony at the National
    Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico. Colwell, U.S. Senator Pete
    V. Domenici of New Mexcio and Anneila Sargent, president-elect of the American Astronomical
    Society, are scheduled to participate. Also on the agenda are NRAO Director Paul Vanden
    Bout; Riccardo Giacconi, president of Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), which operates the
    telescope; Paul Martin, chairman of the AUI board of trustees; and Miller Goss, NRAO’s
    director of VLA operations.

    The VLA is a collection of 27 steel-and-aluminum parabolic dish antennas, each one 82 feet in
    diameter and 230 tons. These antennas are arranged in a giant “Y” pattern 20 miles across on the
    high-desert Plains of San Agustin, 50 miles west of Socorro. The 27 antennas work together as a
    single radio-telescope system, producing images of radio-emitting objects in the universe far more
    detailed than could be made by a single antenna.


    Editors: Media are invited to attend the anniversary ceremony; contact Dave Finley, NRAO, at
    (505) 835-7302/dfinley@nrao.edu. For background and images of the VLA’s scientific
    achievements, see: