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Irbene radio telescope

  
   - darkometer rating:  2 -
  
A rare relic of the Cold War, the RT-32 radio telescope at Irbene in northern Latvia (aka Irbene radio locator) was once used by the USSR to spy on NATO communications. It was part of a set of three such dishes at the site, and at 32 metres in diameter the largest. Today it can be visited, at times there are even tours of the inside. Nearby are the remains of the Soviet garrison that once staffed the complex – now a crumbling ghost town
      
More background info: NOTE that RT-32 is currently undergoing refurbishment and no tours are available until the work is completed, which is expected to be some time in 2015!!
  
The site was built by the Soviet Navy in the 1960s to monitor the NATO enemy's moves and communications. Given its location right on the edge of the Soviet empire and close to the Baltic Sea, it was one of the most important installations of its kind during the Cold War.  The site, code-named “Little Star”, was of course totally secret, closed-off and well guarded. 
  
Several hundred scientists worked here monitoring the West. A whole town was built for them and the guards and technical support staff and their families with all the necessary infrastructure. At its peak the town had up to 3000 inhabitants.
  
Since it was such a high-priority military project, no expense was spared in outfitting the telescopes. At the time of their going into operation they were absolutely state of the art, at least in Soviet terms. But even today, they are of good use, though now for civilian purposes. 
  
The RT-32 radio telescope is at 32 metres diameter (hence the name) the largest such device in Northern Europe and allegedly the eighth largest in the world. At least so they claim, as do various travel guides, though I have some doubts about whether this is indeed (still) true. But never mind. It is certainly an impressive size in any case! 
  
Sometimes also referred to as the Irbene radio locator, it is a fully steerable parabolic antenna (i.e. a “dish”) weighing some 600 tonnes. It is mounted on a 25m-tall conical concrete tower structure with bull-eye windows giving it a somewhat boat-like look. Much of the time, when not actually tracking anything, it is pointed at zenith, so you can't see the inside of the dish from the ground. But it can be angled by more than 90 degrees and rotated by almost the full 360.
  
RT-32 was only one of a complex of three such telescopes at Irbene, which also comprises RT-16 (at – you guessed it – half the diameter of its bigger brother) and the former RT-08 (yep, this one only 8m). The latter was dismantled altogether when the Soviets left in the 1990s, after the USSR had been dissolved and Latvia had regained its independence. 
  
Before the remaining Russian military finally left the site in 1994, they tried their best to destroy all of the facilities, or at least make those parts unusable that they couldn't dismantle or blow up altogether (or were stopped from doing so by the pleading of the Russian Academy of Sciences, or so the story goes). To that end they cut and hammered nails into cables, poured battery acid into the dish operator motors and took with them or destroyed all technical documentation. 
  
So when the site was taken over by Latvian scientists, they had an almost impossible-to-solve puzzle at hand trying to get the telescopes to work again. They had to try every possible cable connection configuration until, by an endless process of trial and error, they pieced it together. It took them several years. But they succeeded.
  
The site is now run as the “Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center” (VIRAC) for scientific research projects including sun observation as well as for satellite imaging and communication.  
  
RT-32 and its remarkable story featured in an episode of Michael Palin's “New Europe” (his grand tour of the former Eastern Bloc countries in 2007). In this section, he was even allowed to squeeze through the access hatch and walk around inside the parabolic dish. Don't expect that privilege on the regular excursions offered for mere normal mortal tourists. 
  
  
What there is to see:  Unfortunately, when I was there in April 2014, there were no tours of the big dish, RT-32, because it was undergoing refurbishment (see access), so I cannot report first-hand on what can be seen inside – or rather: what will be shown on tours when they resume. 
  
The sight of the big dish from the outside, however, is already quite something to behold! At 32m (100 feet) in diameter, it really is quite an impressive piece of technology. The dark connection is not really visible, but once you know what the role of this Cold War spying device used to be, it does exude a certain spooky aura. 
  
There is very little commodification on the outside – just a fairly brief information panel in Latvian, English and German. 
  
The centre's other dish, RT-16, can only be accessed by prior arrangement. You could try locating it on foot by walking up the RT-32 access road towards the administrative centre and turn left after a few hundred yards for a look from the outside. But at only half the size of its big brother, this will be less worth it. 
  
Also only by prior arrangement, the tunnel that connects RT-32 with RT-16 can be visited too – and that is a truly dark affair in the literal sense (bring a good torch!). Unfortunately this offer was also not available when I was in the region.  
  
That left only the ghost town of Irbene, the former Soviet military garrison that used to run the radio telescopes and guarded them (you pass at least two former guard houses on the road leading into the forest and the telescopes). It used to be much bigger, now at least half of the buildings have been demolished and I fear that the rest may follow before too long. When I visited there were some workers pottering about on the southern edges of the complex, eyeing me suspiciously, so I drove off towards the north-eastern edge of the former town and parked there out of sight and went on a brief exploration of at least one of the old Soviet prefab blocks of flats. I didn't venture inside much, just a brief look on the ground floor and mezzanine level. But die-hard urban explorers must have got as far as climbing right up to the roof, going by some photos I've seen online. 
  
Use your own judgement. It is quite probably not legal, officially, to explore this crumbling ghost town, and it may not be safe to do so either.  But if no one stops you from taking a look … 
  
I must say, though, that, as far as ghost towns of this particular Soviet type are concerned, there can be better specimens found elsewhere (see e.g. Chagan), even not too far from here: Karosta near Liepaja, still had some stunning empty buildings when I was there at around the same time. However, there too, the standard prefab blocks of flats that had been abandoned after the Soviets departed in the 1990s were already being taken down as well. Only the older Tsarist-era piles looked like they were safe from such destruction. 
   
So, is it worth the long drive to see the Irbene radio telescope(s)? Probably not for everybody. Unless you get a kick out of looking at such big pieces of Soviet technology it's probably missable, at least for as long as there are no guided tours of the inside. Personally, I found it worth the effort because I also have a leaning towards industrial archaeology, independently from my dark-tourism exploits. So I enjoyed it. My wife was far less enthralled by it all to say the least. 
  
So, again, think carefully and judge for yourself if you think you have to see this or not. I'd say if you're interested at all then at least wait until the tours have resumed and then do it that way.
  
  
Location: near Latvia's north-western-most coast of the Baltic Sea, some 20 miles (30 km) north-east of the port town of Ventspils, a bit under 100 miles (150 km) from Liepaja, and a bit more than that north-west from Riga, Latvia
  
Google maps locator:[57.5533, 21.8547]
  
    
Access and costs: remote and restricted; when tours are available, these are at least relatively affordable. 
  
Details: You have to have your own car to get to this remote location. There is no public transport and it is a long way from any larger settlement. 
  
Coming from the south, e.g. from Liepaja, via Ventspils first stay on the E22/P108 in the direction to Riga, crossing the river. This road then becomes the A10.  Shortly after leaving the outskirts of Ventspils behind, turn off the E22/A10 onto the P124 on your left (it may be signposted Kolka or Mirzebe). After about half an hour (driving at legal speed) keep your eyes open for the brown sign on the right saying “Ventspils starptautiskais radioastronomijas centrs”. 
  
Coming from the east, e.g. from Riga, first make your way via Jurmala and then along the coastal road (P128, then P131) all the way to Cape Kolka (see combinations), the tip of the peninsula that separates the Gulf of Riga from the Baltic Sea, and then carry on in a south-westerly direction on road P124 until the sign for the radio-astronomy centre appears to your left. 
  
This small road first takes you past the ghost town of the former garrison, and after about half a mile (700m) you'll come to the gate of the centre on your right. If it's open you can drive along the access road south for another half mile to get to the car park right by RT-32. If the gate is closed, you can still get pretty close to it by continuing on the small road that took you to the gate for half a mile until you come to some dune-like sandy hillocks, where you can park. From here you can finally see the large dish towering over the surrounding forest just 200 yards or so away – and you can walk there, even right up to the base of the telescope if you just amble through the large gaps in the thus pretty redundant perimeter fence. RT-16 can only be reached if the centre's gate is open, i.e. if you've arranged a tour. 
  
NOTE: the regular tours of RT-32 are currently suspended until some time in 2015 when the refurbishing work on the radio telescope is finished. 
  
When they do run again you can expect to be shown the control room and led up the steps leading to the level right under the dish's base affording a good view over the forest and over to RT-16 to the north-west. Clambering through the little hatch and stepping right onto the inside of the dish is not part of the normal tours, as far as I can gather (so you can't quite replicate Michael Palin's visit to this site – see above). 
  
Cost: 3 EUR per person (half price for people 7-20 years old and seniors over 65) plus 2 EUR for parking (whole day). Maximum group size is 25. Minimum tour charge is 10 EUR – so if you're on your own and nobody else has signed up for a tour, that's the price you have to pay. Still, not bad value even then. 
  
The centre also offers access by guided tour to the underground tunnel connecting RT-32 with RT-16, charged at the same rate (3/1.5 EUR). 
  
While RT-32 is closed for refurbishment you can arrange tours of RT-16 instead (only by prior agreement and only for smaller groups). 
  
To make arrangements email the centre at mailto:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., preferably well in advance. Note that tours are offered only between March and October.
  
  
Time required: to just take a good look at RT-32 from the outside you only need 10 minutes or so, when there are tours offered (currently suspended while the dish is undergoing refurbishment!) these take between 30 minutes and an hour. Similar times can be expected for excursions to the tunnel and RT-16. 
  
Poking around at the nearby ex-garrison ghost town may take anything from a short stop to a thorough (illicit!) urban exploration of a few hours.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing in the vicinity, so the nearest would be Liepaja/Karosta or Riga both a few hours driving time away. It really is quite a remote location.  
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Some people may find the empty countryside of endless pine forest or the largely deserted coastline an attraction in itself (I found it rather boring, to be honest). The nearby Irbe river that gives the radio telescope its name is also used by some for boat/canoe excursions. In theory, you could follow the river's meandering course all the way to where it flows into the Baltic Sea.
  
A little further up the road towards the east from Irbene, the Mikelbaka lighthouse at Mikeltornis could be interesting – at over 60 metres (180 feet), it is said to be the tallest in the Baltics.  
  
Carrying on further east will take you to Slitere National Park and to Cape Kolka, where the Baltic Sea meets the Gulf of Riga. A bit out to sea lies the hexagonal artificial island with Kolka's lighthouse. And a bit south of that the coastline becomes steeper and more interesting at Evazu stavkrasts. 
  
In the other direction, Latvia's oldest lighthouse can be found at Ovisi, which also features a small museum on the topic.
  
Finally, the port town of Ventspils (the country's third major harbour, together with that of Riga and Liepaja) is the north-westernmost tourist centre in Latvia, with a small old town, a popular beach and lots of flowers. Yes, the place indeed prides itself on being Latvia's “flower capital”. A local oddity is also the “cow parade” of a number of cow sculptures (including some absolutely huge ones) now permanently on display in the town. 
    
  
  • Irbene 01 - gateIrbene 01 - gate
  • Irbene 02 - the radio locator from a distanceIrbene 02 - the radio locator from a distance
  • Irbene 03 - zoomed inIrbene 03 - zoomed in
  • Irbene 04 - closer upIrbene 04 - closer up
  • Irbene 05 - detailIrbene 05 - detail
  • Irbene 06 - more detailIrbene 06 - more detail
  • Irbene 07 - from belowIrbene 07 - from below
  • Irbene 08 - normally they offer toursIrbene 08 - normally they offer tours
  • Irbene 09 - former Soviet garrisonIrbene 09 - former Soviet garrison
  • Irbene 10 - now a ghost townIrbene 10 - now a ghost town
  • Irbene 11 - ghost windowIrbene 11 - ghost window
  • Irbene 12 - ghost staircaseIrbene 12 - ghost staircase
  • Irbene 13 - wallpaperIrbene 13 - wallpaper
  • Irbene 14 - insightIrbene 14 - insight
  • Irbene 15 - sign by the roadIrbene 15 - sign by the road
  
  

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