Consider a Technology Tour for Your Next Vacation

During our travels across North America, we toured several technology-themed tourist attractions, which I documented in my regular guest column printed in the Eureka Times Standard Newspaper. This one appeared in the 07/03/08 edition.

Consider a Technology Tour for Your Next Vacation

The next time you start dreaming of a vacation, consider coming to New Mexico. Incredible landscapes aside, this state is a great place for technology and science aficionados to visit. From observatories, to military technology development, to the world’s first private spaceport, New Mexico offers something for the geek in all of us.

We were lucky enough to be here in April, one of the best months for technology buffs to visit. For one day only, propeller heads can walk amongst the low-level radioactive earth on the Trinity Test Site (home of the world’s first atomic bomb test), and on the same day, tour the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array, each located just one hour apart.

Trinity Test Site

Every living thing on earth has been affected by the world’s first nuclear explosion, which took place on July 16, 1945. On that day, a 19 kiloton nuclear explosion occurred, and pushed humanity into the atomic age. The Trinity Test Site is located on the White Sands Missile Range, in a 51,500 acre area that’s off-limits to the public for all but two days each year, in April and October. On those days, atomic tourists can set foot on ground zero and learn about the event though interpretive displays and live demos. There’s even a Fat Man bomb casing display to capture your Kodak moment.

As we walked onto the grounds, our biggest misconception about the area was shattered; the ground did not melt and turn to glass underneath the heat of the bomb, as we always thought. Rather, when the bomb exploded, the sand below was drawn up into the heat of the fireball, and then rained down on earth in a liquid form. The liquid solidified into tiny bits and turned into chunks of a glassy green, rocky substance later called “trinitite.”

Although it’s slightly radioactive, experts on the White Sands Missile Range website claims that trinitite is safe to handle for limited amounts of time. Did we pick it up? You betcha! It was too tempting, especially after learning that bananas emit about as much radiation as that glassy substance!

Very Large Array

After washing our hands thoroughly, we headed 50 miles west for a tour of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s “Very Large Array (VLA),” site of the 27 giant satellite dishes made famous by the Carl Sagan fiction novel, “Contact,” and later made into a movie starring Jodie Foster. In the movie, Jodie Foster plays a scientist at the VLA, who is on the verge of making alien contact from Vega, a distant star in the galaxy.

Our tour was led by a VLA project director and astronomer. As she walked our group over to one of the 230 ton antennas, she explained that while the movie “Contact” was filmed there, the VLA has nothing to do with alien research or SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The VLA’s sole purpose is scientific stellar and galactic research.

The VLA is funded by the National Science Foundation, and operates under an “Open Skies Policy,” making it open for use by astronomers, free of charge. Astronomers from around the world compete for use of the VLA with proposals judged on scientific merit. Winners are allowed use of the facility and its staff for four-month observation periods.

The VLA became operational in 1980. Each of the 27 antennas is 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, and can withstand winds of up to 200 MPH.

According to their website, “the VLA is an interferometer; this means that it operates by multiplying the data from each pair of telescopes together to form interference patterns. The structure of those interference patterns, and how they change with time as the earth rotates, reflect the structure of radio sources on the sky: we can take these patterns and use a mathematical technique called the Fourier transform to make maps.”

The VLA can be operated in four different configurations, creatively named A, B, C, and D. These differ by the distance between the 27 individual antennas. Two large transporters ride on a double rail system to move the antennas into place and connect them to the network.

The resolution of the VLA is set by the size of the array. At the highest frequency (43 Ghz), the largest configuration will give a resolution of 0.04 arcseconds: sufficient to see a golf ball held by a friend 100 miles away. Management and control applications are written in Java and can be operated using a web browser.

If you have even the slightest interest in astronomy, visiting the VLA is worth the drive. But if you can’t get out to the southwest for your next vacation, you can still visit a world-renowned array, practically in your own backyard. The world’s largest SETI extraterrestrial research station is located just 75 miles east of Redding, in Hat Creek. Learn more at

Jim Nelson and Rene Agredano are on the road visiting small towns in North America and documenting their travels at They have been active Redwood Technology Consortium members since 1998, and past Board members.

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