New program launches on New Year’s Day

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There’s something new happening at the Very Large Array in 2011, and it starts on the first day of the new year.

This Saturday, Judy Stanley, the NRAO/VLA Education Officer, is launching a new program of monthly guided tours, on the first Saturday of every month.
“There are several reasons that I’m doing it,” Stanley said. “One reason is to provide a way for people to come out to the VLA and talk to a real live person out there. What I have found is that people enjoy the self-guided tours but they really want to talk with a human being who can answer their questions.”
The VLA already opens for guided tours twice per year, on the first Saturdays in April and October.
“We have just scores of people who come out to visit on those days,” Stanley said. “What we’re doing is building on that success.”
In addition to the “behind the scenes” access to areas normally off-limits to the public except for the guided tour, each First Saturday Tour will also focus on a different topic relating to radio astronomy, science, technology and discovery, with a family friendly hands-on activity to illustrate it.
On Jan. 1, the theme is “Invisible Universe” and the featured demonstration will explain what radio astronomy actually is and explore how astronomers study celestial phenomena that can’t be seen with the human eye.
“Another reason we’re doing this — and this is really important to me personally — is that we create an experience for the community that other places can come and join in with as well,” Stanley said. “We think it will help the community. There are already other First Saturday activities in the county — Magdalena businesses have a First Saturday Open House, for example — and we can work together, collaborate with them and build on that.”
Stanley envisions area hotels and motels coming up with special tourist packages, and area shops taking advantage of the monthly events for a little cross-promotion.
“Everyone can build on it in their own way,” Stanley said. “Before you know it, I think within the next several months this could really take off, and we can have more folks coming down from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and up from Las Cruces, and over from Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma. Right now we’re in an economic decline, and people aren’t spending the money to go abroad and travel in other countries, they’re visiting their own backyards.”
As excited as Stanley is about helping the VLA become a partner in economic development for the county, she has other motivations that are near and dear to her heart, and stem from her years as an elementary school science teacher.
“Another focus for me is getting the schools involved,” she said. “I’m inviting teachers and their students to participate in the hands-on aspect, and I’m really inviting teachers to work with me.”
Stanley said she’s interested in going into the schools and making presentations tailored to topics the students are studying in their science units.
“Whether it be planets or galaxies, whatever they’re studying I can augment that, and teach them an activity that they could teach to other classes,” she said. “Then students could come out to the VLA and be part of a team that helps educate the visitors.”
For example, in May the theme for the First Saturday Tour is Solar Radiation. Stanley said she’d love to go into a few classrooms and teach something related to solar radiation, such as how to use a solar telescope or something about solar physics, and then have the students help demonstrate that to the general public at the First Saturday Tour.
“We’re not just opening it to visitors,” she said. “It’s really about getting the community involved with science education and with the science happening in our own backyard. There are discoveries we’re making that are really astonishing, and we can share those and share that excitement.”
The guided tours will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. They’re free, and no reservations are required.
“Each tour will take the visitor on a journey through the cosmos as seen by the giant radio telescopes,” Stanley said. “In February, the theme is galaxies, and March is all about black holes.”
Other planned topics include movies and film productions that feature the VLA, exploding stars known as supernovas, and the most powerful explosions in the universe, known as gamma ray bursts.
To complete the experience, Stanley is planning star parties to give people an opportunity to observe seasonal objects in the night sky, weather permitting. The locations will vary – Stanley’s personal motto appears to be “have telescope, will travel.”
The first one of the year, on New Year’s Day, will take place beginning at sunset at the Etscorn Observatory on the New Mexico Tech campus. For the others, she envisions star parties held in Magdalena, at the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, at the Bosque del Apache and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuges, in front of the Array Operations Center by the NMT Golf Course, and even in the parking lots and playgrounds of schools all around the Socorro Consolidated Schools district.
Whatever it takes to bring the science of the stars to the people, Stanley said she’s willing to do, and wherever she sees an opportunity to share the discoveries of the radio astronomers with the rest of the world, that’s where she’ll go.
“The VLA is paid for by our tax dollars,” she said. “That means the VLA is your observatory. It belongs to all of us. I’m very passionate about that.”
She added, laughing, “I want people to understand that we’re using their tax dollars for good, not evil.”