Critical Section

the church of OVRO

Sunday,  07/12/09  02:51 PM

Way back in the dawn of time when I was an undergraduate at Caltech, I worked in the radio astronomy department on a project called VLBI, very long baseline interferometery.  Essentially this project took signals from radio telescopes all over the Earth and combined them, using phase differences between the arrival of radio waves from a given source to determine the physical configuration of the source.  One of the key sites used in this project was OVRO, the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, which is located just North of Big Pine, California.

You can see the huge OVRO radio dishes when you're driving on highway 395, in the distances against the hills to the East, and tens or probably hundreds of times I've thought to myself "I should go check them out", as I'm driving to go skiing in Mammoth, or visit Lake Tahoe, or go cycling in Markleeville.  And so it was that this morning I stopped, and checked it out.


First, the installation practices security by obscurity; you have to travel through some little backroads to get there, but there are no fences or gates, just one warning sign. 

Second, the dishes are HUGE.  You can't imagine how big until you're next to them.

Third, it was cool to note that all the dishes are inline, mounted on giant railroad tracks, so that the distance between them can be minutely controlled to capture different wavelengths as if they were part of one telescope.

And finally, there is an amazing majesty to these huge telescopes, calmly viewing the universe as it existed billions of years ago. 

It literally brought tears to my eyes, standing there all alone.  Kind of a religious experience on a Sunday morning.  In the church of OVRO.

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