Explore The Very Large Array, The Massive Observatory From Contact

Even if the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s 33-year-old Very Large Array doesn’t sound familiar, it probably looks familiar: It was the backdrop to Jodie Foster’s work in Contact. Wonderfully, Foster serves as the narrator of this awesome mini-doc about the VLA, which was recently rebuilt from the inside out in a massive reconstruction project.

The VLA is the workhorse of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which finished building its 27 massive antennae in rural New Mexico in 1980. Since then, the Array has collected radio waves from the furthest reaches of the universe, contributing to our knowledge of all kinds of phenomena. In Contact that meant communicating with extraterrestrial life, but the reality is actually just as exciting — the VLA was the lynchpin in figuring out what black holes, quasars, pulsars and supernova remnants actually are.

As Foster explains in Beyond the Visible, this beautiful 24-minute documentary, a decade ago the VLA was at the end of its useful lifespan. Unwilling to abandon it, the NRAO launched a gigantic project to rebuild the electronics inside each 82-foot-wide dish. Today, it’s reclaimed its title as one of the foremost earthly explorers of the universe’s outer edges.

And yes — you can go visit the VLA if you ever find yourself on Route 60. Or, you used to be able to — the entire NRAO (including the VLA) is shuttered indefinitely during the government shutdown. [YouTube via Slate]