It is a question humans have asked since they began looking up at stars in the nighttime sky: Are we alone, or is there anyone out there?
It’s a question they take seriously at the Very Large Array radio telescope on the Plains of San Augustin west of Socorro, which has been designated for a massive next-generation upgrade that ultimately will cost an estimated $2.4 billion and won’t be up and running until 2035.
The project will boost the number of dish antennas from the 28 operating now to 263 – most at the current site but also installed at locations ranging from New Hampshire to Hawaii. The network will be operated from the existing VLA site in New Mexico.
So yes, the state that saw the first rocket launch into space from American soil (from White Sands Missile Range in 1946) and the world’s first commercial space flight by Virgin Galactic earlier this year will continue to be the planet’s headquarters for probing distant galaxies, black holes and star systems.
The mission is much more than a hunt for ET, although the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which has been awarded $23 million to design and develop a prototype antenna for the ngVLA, works with the SETI Institute, an organization dedicated to that search. This is also about pure science.
Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, says the VLA is by far the world’s premier radio telescope facility and since coming online in 1980 it has made many major scientific breakthroughs. The rotation rate of the planet Mercury and better understanding the nature of collapsing black holes, just to name a couple.
In addition to the question of “is anyone out there?” the improved VLA capability also could shed light on “how did we get here?”
“We’ll have the sensitivity and resolution to actually be able to make movies of planets forming around nearby stars,” Beasley said. “You can learn whether they are organic molecules like water and simple carbon chain molecules and so on.”
This is exciting stuff that will benefit generations not yet born. The fact it is headquartered in New Mexico, a state with a rich history of exploration, is something we should all be able to celebrate.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.