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Chasing Radio Signals Through High Deserts

Why NASA Looks for High Deserts?

Part III

Space scientists studying around the nation need uninterrupted air and land areas to work in. Signals coming from deep in outer space are so weak that we need to bump up the strength so we can listen and capture the radio waves that planets and stars emit. Then we have to trap the signals so they can be sent to places like Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in California to be studied.

Dishes move on rails

A series of small dishes capture condensed signals

We often go to High Desert expanses like St. Augustin Plains in New Mexico, Mojave Desert in California, and Eastern Oregon’s high plains to receive the clearest and strongest signals. We need a noiseless and fairly high plain without too much interference.

In this Part III look at high deserts, we can say that St. Augustin Plains is remote and clear enough to try new studies. It sits about 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico and about 20 miles west of Magdalena. The Very Large Array (VLA) is a series of small satellite dishes running on a closed system of rails on the ground in a specific pattern. With many small dishes working together, a stronger concentrated signal can be captured.

many dishes are better than one

Dishes move to one target signal in space

The flexibility of a rail system also allows the pattern on the ground to adjust to new studies. You can take your family to see the public tours most of the year, watch the system working, the souvenir shop, and other historical displays.

At St. Augustin Plains wild antelope still roam the plains. They don’t seem to care if people get out of their vehicles to take photos. Here you can learn more about radio astronomy and the role the Very Large Array (VLA) and other NRAO telescopes play in current research.

What is Radio Astronomy?

 We see the world around us, because our eyes detect visible light, a type of electromagnetic radiation. Objects on Earth and in space also emit other types of EM radiation that cannot be seen by the human eye, such as radio waves. The full range of all radiating EM waves is called the electromagnetic spectrum.

Radio astronomy is the study of celestial objects that give off radio waves. With radio astronomy, we study astronomical phenomena that are often invisible or hidden in other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Radio Astronomy Reveals the Hidden Universe.
Since radio waves penetrate dust, we use radio astronomy techniques to study regions that cannot be seen in visible light, such as the dust-shrouded, busy center of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. Radio waves also allow us to trace the location, density, and motion of the hydrogen gas that constitutes three-fourths of the ordinary matter in the Universe.

Partnerships: How We Study Earth From Space

The primary objective of DSCOVR, a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force, is to maintain the nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA.

The satellite was launched in February and recently reached its planned orbit at the first Lagrange point or L1, about one million miles from Earth toward the sun. It’s from that unique vantage point that the EPIC instrument is acquiring science quality images of the entire sunlit face of Earth.

Nation’s first operational satellite in deep space reaches final orbit

June 8, 2015 — More than 100 days after it launched, NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite has reached its orbit position about one million miles from Earth.

Earth From DSCOVR

First Full Spectrum View of Earth

Data from EPIC will be used to measure ozone and aerosol levels in Earth’s atmosphere, cloud height, vegetation properties and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. NASA will use this radiometry data for a number of Earth science applications, including dust and volcanic ash maps of the entire planet.

In addition to space weather instruments, DSCOVR carries a second NASA sensor — the National Institute of Science and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR). Data from the NASA science instruments will be processed at the agency’s DSCOVR Science Operations Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. This data will be archived and distributed by the Atmospheric Science Data Center at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

So without the wide array of remote high deserts, NASA wouldn’t be able to gather as much data from space, use it to understand radio waves that give us measurements to study, or the ability to share the data with our technical scientists here and around the world.


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