Monday, February 11, 2013

Space Tour, Part 2 - Socorro, NM

Our campsite in Box Canyon showing rock face popular with climbers
North we go to Socorro, New Mexico, which is on the western side of the state about mid-way north/south.  We camp about 5 miles west of town on BLM land at the trailhead of the Box Canyon which is a very popular spot for hikers and climbers.  We watch many climbers right out of our trailer's back window.  Sadly, we never explore this area although it looks beautiful.  We are in the foothills of a mountain range whose peaks are up to 10,000 feet and have snow on their tops.  But our temperatures are warm (enough) and the sun is shining (still).

We visit the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array (VLA) about 50 miles west of Socorro, where 27 radio telescopes spread about 36 miles across the plains of San Agustin in a Y pattern on rails.  Today, the antennas are close together, so not 36 miles apart end-to-end.  They are moved by rail using huge flatbeds.  This area is perfect for the array because it is surrounded by mountains on a desert plain which helps to block other radio signals.  If you like space/science fiction movies, you've seen this array in a few movies, most notably Contact with Jodie Foster (although in that movie they computer generated almost 100 more telescopes and used Canyon de Chelley (pron. Canyon de Shay, which is really in Arizona) as a backdrop.  It was also used in the opening scene of one of my all-time favourites, 2010: Odyssey Two, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey ("piece of pie"; "easy as cake" - my favourite quotes from 2010 and I use them to this day).  Anyway, the site is really neat, and we take a self-guided walking tour.  There is also a very informative Visitors Center with numerous displays and videos, although I must admit, most of the physics is over my head, but Brad loved it.  I focused on the movie stuff and the easy layman explanations, for example, the scientists here (mostly from universities) create pictures of planets, stars, galaxies, etc. by capturing the radio waves from space, which a computer translates into numbers (as computers do), then each number is assigned a colour and a picture can be generated.  It's another way of looking at our universe, as opposed to using visual telescopes which usually only capture visible light rays (those we can see).

One of the antennas behind our truck
The VLA is also part of the VLBA, the Very Long Baseline Array, comprised of 10 antennas located across the US including the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, California, Washington, Iowa, Arizona, Texas, New Hampshire and two sites in New Mexico.  Working together as a single powerful telescope, these antennas reveal aspects of our universe that are hidden from other observatories.  Important to note: these radio telescopes are not listening for transmissions from E.T.  The images produced from the radio waves provide astronomers with a different view of the elements in our universe.

In town, we visit the Mineral Museum located on the campus of New Mexico Tech University.  Many local mineral specimans are displayed here, as well as others from around the world including Ontario, Canada!  We were delightfully surprised to see minerals from the Bancroft area where we have collected numerous rocks for years.  There's even a specimen from the Bear Lake Diggings (old mine tailings) near Bancroft, where we were chased by dogs about 10 years ago!  It's an interesting little museum, and free, although signage is a bit lacking and we had to ask directions in the Geology building down the street.

Marilyn in San Lorenzo Canyon
We also hike San Lorenzo Canyon, about five miles north of Socorro.  The canyon walls are a mixture of volcanic basalt, sandstone and conglomerate (rocks in hardened mud).  Millions of years of erosion and upheaval have created interesting channels, angles, and formations (including hoodoos and pinnacles).  An ancient fault line occurs here, but is not as active as it was in its younger days (like so many of us!).  This fault has pushed up many of the rock faces.  Being Sunday, there are also a couple of groups of people out riding today - that is, riding horses, mules, and donkeys.  This just adds to the western, cowboy atmosphere.
Horse & mule riders in San Lorenzo Canyon

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