Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Trinity Site and the VLA

We left Deming at 9:00 am, early for us, because afternoon winds were expected to be bad. This is something one needs to be aware of when traveling in the West. We have seen many reports often times when we have been out here of big rigs being blown over. We only had 160 miles to travel to get to Socorro where we wanted to visit the Trinity Site and the VLA. 
The day we went to Mexico from Deming we had considered a trip to Hatch, the chile growing capital of America. After driving through Hatch on our way to Socorro it looks like a return visit is in order. This is one of many stands selling everything chiles. 
When we visited Alamogordo in April 2009 we just missed the chance to visit the Trinity Site which is only open to the public the first Saturday of April and September. The Trinity Site is where the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945. The entrance to the site is about twenty miles from Socorro and as you can see there was, as we expected, a wait. We were in line about two miles from the entrance when the gate opened at 8:00 am. It took about an hour to get to the gate and it was then a few more miles to the site on the White Sands Missile Range
Ground zero is fenced and has a maximum radiation level only ten times greater than natural background radiation. Many places on Earth have higher levels. An hour visit gives you less exposure than a cross country flight. The development of the bomb was the goal of the Manhattan Project that started in June 1942 in Oak Ridge, TN; Hanford, WA and Los Alamos, NM. 
Here I am inside what is left of Jumbo, a twenty foot long, 10 foot diameter bomb weighing 214 tons that was originally designed to contain the plutonium if the bomb failed to explode. As they gained confidence that the bomb would work, Jumbo was not used. It was place under a steel tower 800 yards from ground zero. Jumbo survived, the tower did not. In 1946 the Army used eight 500 pound bombs to blow the ends off.
Even the glow of radiation was not enough to keep Nanc warm as she used the Geiger Counter to check the radiation levels of several objects on display.
Trinitite, also known as atomsite or Alamogordo glass, was formed at the site when the heat of the explosion melted the sand, turning it to glass. It has a very low level of radiation and can be bought at local rock shops. It is illegal to take any from ground zero.
Nanc at ground zero. While there was higher levels of radiation after the bomb exploded the site was "cleaned up" in the early '50s and the soil was buried.
Jim at ground zero. All that happened here was after WWII had ended in Europe and the Allies had already started preparation for the invasion of Japan. Success by the scientists here would mean that invasion, where thousands of Americans would have lost their lives, would not be needed. Since my father was back from Europe and training for that invasion I always felt I may not be here if the bomb had not been developed.
We arrived early so the crowd was not that big. Over 4,600 people visited the site this day. Many drive in from Socorro like we did, but you can also come in from Alamogordo, 85 miles to the south. Those coming from the south must meet and travel with an escorted convoy across the missile range.
The George McDonald ranch house two miles from ground zero is where the bomb core of plutonium was assembled in the master bedroom that had been turned into a clean room. After it was assembled the scientists loaded it into the back of a Chrysler Plymouth and drove it to the site.
The assembled bomb atop the 100 foot tower. The wires were connected to three bunkers 10,000 yards away where all the instruments to measure its yield were located. No one really knew what the explosion would be like.  Some predicted failure while others thought it would set off a chain reaction and destroy the world. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Los Alamos National Lab, had the most accurate prediction of  the 19-kiloton explosion.
The bomb exploding from .006 second (top left), to .100 second (bottom left). Bottom right is the classic mushroom cloud 15 seconds into the explosion. A military policeman 10 miles away said the heat was like opening an oven. One of the scientists said it was like the heat of the sun on your face, then after a few minutes the real sunrise followed so they had two sunrises that day. The explosion was felt 160 miles away, breaking windows 120 miles from ground zero. The Army's cover story was a huge stockpile of munitions had exploded.
Just three weeks after this test at Trinity the first of two bombs was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th. Three days later Fat Man (above) was dropped on Nagasaki. While these bombs caused greater damage than any previous explosion, much of the radiation blew away because they were detonated at 2000 feet above the cities. On August 15th the Japanese surrendered, V-J Day, followed by the formal surrender on board the USS Missouri on September 2nd, bringing an end to a war that had started in Europe on September 1, 1939.
As we were leaving these protesters were at the entrance. They are down-winders, who were in the range of radioactive fallout from the explosion. Those who lived near Trinity and others who lived down wind from later tests in Arizona, Nevada and Utah have suffered increased rates of cancer. 
For anyone who grew up during the time of duck and cover drills like I did, a visit to the Trinity Site will be very interesting. 
The weather we had in Socorro was less than ideal with high winds, rain and even some snow at higher elevations. We did manage to squeeze in both the things we wanted to do without getting wet and the snow capped high plains and mountains were beautiful from afar.
The other thing on our to do list was a tour of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array (VLA). The array is 50 miles west of Socorro on the high plains at 7000 feet. From a distance they don't really look like much.
The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array is 27 radio telescopes arranged in three groups which are turned on the same point in the universe together giving them more gathering ability. They can be moved to four different locations along these rails. When we were there they were at configuration D with all of them within a half mile of the center. At their furthest they are 11 miles from the center or 22 miles apart. 
The array was built between 1973 and 1980 and in addition to its scientific use has been used in TV shows and movies. They were featured in Carl Sagan's Cosmos and several movies including Contact staring Jodie Foster, who narrates the visitors center video.
They don't look big sitting on the plains with nothing else nearby but when you get up close they are huge. At 82 feet across and weighing over 200 tons it dwarfs Nanc standing under it.  
The dishes are moved to new locations every three or four months, using two specially built carriers that move on the double set of rails. Each move takes about three weeks depending on which configuration they are moving to. 
The sculpture reflects the three paths that the dishes move along. 
The results of some of the observatory's work. It is used to investigate galaxies, quasars, pulsars, supernovas, stars, suns, planets, and black holes. It was used to communicate with Voyager 2 in 1989 as it moved beyond Neptune. A very impressive array of work.  
The barn where the dishes are updated and the extra dish that is on stand by if there is a problem with one of them. In 2011 a major update was completed on all the dishes increasing there power to over 8,000 times better than the original 1970's technology.
WOW, we got to see them move!!! While we were there all the dishes moved to a new position. It was like watching a synchronized dance as they changed direction together. Very Neat!!!   
The VLA is a great stop in the New Mexico high desert. If you are there on the first Saturday of the month they have special guided and behind the scenes tours. The self-guided tour was very informative with an easy to follow guide.
The VLA is on open range so watch out for the cows. How cool it is, these dishes looking 26,000 light years, 150 quadrillion miles into the universe under the gaze of these cows. Socorro was a great little town with a couple good restaurants and I was able to scratch two things off my to do list.


Jan Mains said...

Our timing never seems to be right when we are in that area. We did enjoy the tour at Oak Ridge.

Doing It On the Road(Part II) said...

Great post, and a great history update! Love the VLA images.

Bobbie and Jim said...

Very interesting blog post....well done.