It’s official: iconic telescope now Jansky VLA
With the wave of a magic wand, it was done. The Very Large Array officially became the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, and the world’s most famous radio telescope took a giant leap deep into the 21st Century.
At a dedication ceremony held in the antenna barn at the VLA site on the Plains of San Agustin, 20 miles west of Magdalena, National Radio Astronomy Observatory Director Fred K.Y. Loy had the honor of formally renaming the iconic instrument, which consists of 27 radio antennas, each 25 meters in diameters, spread across the San Agustin Plains.
“Just as Karl Jansky’s groundbreaking discovery of cosmic radio waves in 1932 opened a new era of scientific discovery, the vastly improved capabilities of this telescope will give scientists new ways of tackling the challenges facing 21st-Century astrophysics,” Lo said.
The VLA, first dedicated in 1980, is in the process of being expanded, making it more than 10 times more sensitive to faint radio emissions from space than the original version. That expansion, consisting of upgrades to electronics and technology, began in 2001 and is expected to be fully complete by the end of the year.
To the amusement of more than 100 invited guests, Lo pulled out a toy magic wand and waved it in the air to symbolize the transformation. At that, several of the dish antennas visible in the distance could be seen slowly rotating at their base.
As essentially a new state-of-the-art instrument, Lo said NRAO officials decided the VLA needed a new name. A contest was held, drawing more than 23,000 suggestions by more than 17,000 people from 65 countries.
Lo joked that his personal favorite recommendation was Fabulous Radio Extragalactic Device, which as an antonym spells out his own first name, FRED. But a committee established to recommend a new name settled on the Karl G. Jansky VLA to honor the founder of radio astronomy.
Jansky, while working for Bell Telephone Laboratories, discovered an unidentified hiss-type static that initially could not be pinpointed. He rightfully concluded that the static was coming from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.
This discovery opened a new window on the universe for astronomers to study radio emissions. Discoveries made with radio telescopes have earned four Nobel Prizes, including the discovery of pulsars, evidence of gravitational waves and ubiquitous microwave background radiation.
Moreau Parsons, Jansky’s daughter, had a front-row seat for the dedication. Afterward, she expressed her appreciation for the honor bestowed upon her father.
“It’s a great honor, particularly because I live in New Mexico,” said Parsons, who now resides in Placitas. “It brings the Jansky name out to the public and makes the public more aware of the origins and history of radio astronomy and how it’s being applied here in New Mexico.”
Parsons said when the new name was announced last December, she received congratulations from all over the world.
“People called I didn’t even know,” she said.
The dedication, emceed by NRAO Assistant Director Dale Frail, drew dignitaries from far and wide. Among them were James Ulvested, director of the Astronomical Science Division of the National Science Foundation, and Ethan Schreier, president of Associated Universities, Inc. The NRAO is a National Science Foundation facility that is operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities.
Also on hand were Greg Fahlman, director-general of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, who pointed out that the VLA was funded in part by Canadian taxpayer money, and Carlos Aramburo, dean of sciences at Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Mexico, who told the crowd of the benefits Mexican astronomers have gained by use of what is now the Jansky VLA.
Representatives from the offices of New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce and Sen. Tom Udall also read statements from the state’s elected officials.
After a New Mexico flavored lunch was served, attendees were invited to visit a display set up at the Jansky VLA cafeteria, where some of the speakers mingled with guests.
Ulvastad expounded there the significance of the day.
“One thing is you think about the VLA when it was made it was ahead of other telescopes in a lot of areas. Now, it’s leaped back up,” he said. “This day marks the turnover from a 1970s to 1980s telescope to a 2010 telescope. The JVLA is now way out in front in the field of radio astronomy.”
Ulvastad said astronomers and scientists now have access to data they never had before.
“As Dale (Frail) said during his remarks, it’ll be a little different tomorrow than it is today. Anything the VLA observes — any star, any planet, any galaxy — is now up to 80 times more information than it has been able to grab. It’s a spectacular leap forward,” he said.
Schreier emphasized some of the benefits here on Earth.
“It’s a very hands-on science that is good in training, not just science but in engineering,” he said. “A lot of technology is developed here and the software is exported.”
Schreier credited the team at the NRAO facility in Socorro is responsible for developing about half the software used in the instrument, and some of it is incorporated in the ALMA observatory in Chile.
As a result, personnel from both facilities are shared, he said, and the collaboration is one reason why so many other countries are willing to contribute funding.
“And a lot of that international funding comes to Socorro,” he said, adding that New Mexico Tech, which houses the NRAO offices in Socorro, is among the beneficiaries.
Tony Beasley, who will succeed Lo as NRAO director, also praised the Socorro side of the operation in his remarks.
“It (the Jansky VLA) is a whole new set of eyes on the sky. It’s the start of a new adventure for this telescope and for the team in Socorro, which should be recognized for their efforts,” he said. “This is the start of renewed international interest and new partnerships. A very exciting day.”
Beasley said the VLA makes more than just discoveries in space. New technologies developed and utilized in the telescope have been applied to computer software and optic cameras and low noise amplifications used in cellphones.
“And it gets kids interested in math and science,” he said. “The way that it inspires people is worth far more than the cost.”
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