That Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope out in the New Mexico desert isn’t quite large enough, because soon it’ll be the Expanded Very Large Array. Its analog innards, in place since the beginning of the disco era in the ‘70s, are being swapped out for all-digital tech, giving the phalanx of 28 dishes ten times the sensitivity by 2012. Handling the blast of data coming from each of these 82-foot, 230-ton behemoths will be a much faster correlator, a $17 million central computer that makes sense of all this space noise from the electromagnetic spectrum, turning all that racket into mind-boggling discoveries.
Besides that highly important ability to hear cell phone conversations taking place on Jupiter, scientists will be able to detect events even farther into the past with this multi-headed beast, peeking into clouds in space as planets are formed, getting even more clues about how the universe began, and maybe enjoying the banter of morning disk jockeys from alien worlds. Even in its current lower-tech state, the VLA was able to detect objects that optical devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope couldn’t see, such as the black hole at the center of our galaxy, ice on Mercury and galaxies in their infancy.
Although this scope will be vastly improved, it’ll be dwarfed by one under construction in Europe, the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) with 25,000 smaller antennas spread out over hundreds of miles.