Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center – Irbene, Latvia - Atlas Obscura

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Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center

Irbene, Latvia

This impressively complicated radioastronomy research center was once a tool of Soviet spies.  


On the Latvian coast of the Baltic Sea, the Soviet Army had an incredible secret weapon in a top secret location—The RT-32, also known as the Irbene Radar.

The top secret location of the RT-32 was referred to as The Starlet, a covert base “hiding” the massive radio telescope that weighed in as the eighth largest in existence. Along with its daintier counterpart the RT-16, this massive parabolic centimetre-wave range antenna was built by the Ukraine Navy and installed by the Soviet military for your typical spy stuff—listening in on NATO countries and intercepting radio signals.It’s name referring to its giant, 32-meter antenna, the 600-ton RT-32 somehow escaped notice until 1993, when the Soviet Army withdrew when Lativia won its independence. Wasting no time, the Latvian Academy of Sciences moved in to commandeer the monolithic telescope in the name of science. Unfortunately, the Soviets didn’t leave The Starlet or its technological treasures untouched. Before their departure they made sure to destroy as much equipment as possible, and dumping acid onto any working motors and smashing anything within reach. Luckily, no order was given to completely destroy the antenna dishes, and the Latvian Academy was able to restore the radio telescopes and put them to a more beneficial and likely more exciting use. 

Now, instead of eavesdropping on dignitaries arguing in boardrooms, the mighty telescope peers into the vast expanse of outer space, assisting astronomers in observing the mighty day star, poking around space debris, and keeping an eye out for intelligent life. No longer a fancy military spy gadget, the RT-32 can be visited by civilians and explored on guided tours, although they are currently suspended until 2015 due to renovations. The Starlet, once a super-secret spy hideout, is now the prestigious Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center with panoramic views and underground passageways to explore. Regardless of the temporary hold on guided tours, one can still enter the grounds and drive around the site, still an urban exploration favorite. Existing somewhere between ruin and restoration, the high-tech astronomy center is juxtaposed against the remaining abandoned Soviet apartment buildings and military posts, an excellent photo opportunity and the last chance to view the extraordinary telescope with the surrounding remnants of its espionage days. 

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July 4, 2013

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