The Very Large Array
Socorro, New Mexico
It's huge, it's spacey, it's free. The Very Large Array has become a destination for people like us who know nothing about astrophysical masers or aperture synthesis interferometry.
We drove out to the remote Very Large Array because it's a sci-fi icon, instantly recognizable eye candy from films such as Contact, Independence Day, and Terminator Salvation. Bon Jovi shot a rock video here.
The pop culture image impression is that the giant antennas in the Very Large Array are part of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). In fact, they aren't. Officially the dishes only listen to intergalactic noisemakers such as black holes and pulsars, although if someone from another planet said hello it would probably be picked up here pretty quickly.
The Very Large Array is as its name promises. Each of its Y-shaped arms is 13 miles long. Its 27 antennas weigh 230 tons apiece, mounted on railroad tracks so they can slide around to boost their ability to eavesdrop. It can be seen from space, and from many miles away as you approach on US 60.
For something so hi-tech, the Very Large Array is surprisingly accessible. You can visit every day until sunset, walking from the small Visitor Center along a self-guided tour trail that takes you to the base of the second dish. Signs warn visitors to watch for snakes (we saw only jackrabbits).
There's a "whisper gallery" made from two satellite dishes to demonstrate how they gather and amplify faint sound waves. The scrubby, flat plateau -- chosen for the VLA because it's so empty -- is quiet except for the steady clunk-clunk-clunk of the antenna drive motors as they track the big dishes across the sky.
The only restriction at the Very Large Array (aside from the snakes) is that you can't use any mobile devices while visiting. They're too noisy.