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A Brief History of The Irbene Telescope

The Irbene telescope is located 30km north of Ventspils on the Latvian coast of the Baltic Sea. It is a former soviet telescope now used by astronomers to explore the deepest reaches of space looking for signs of intelligent life and searching for space debris.

Measuring a less than humble 32 metres in diameter and weighting 600 tonnes, it is the 8th largest such telescope in the world and the largest in northern Europe.

Cold War Paranoia

It does however have something of murky past as a top secret spy telescope used by the USSR to listen in on NATO countries during the cold war. Along with two other military satellites with diameters of 16m and 8m the whole region surrounding the complex was a restricted area off limits to most civilians.

The site hosted upward of 2000 scientists along with the necessary military personnel and their families. There were shops, a school, 260 flats and even a post office. At the time it had the secret code name of Звёздочка which translates as little star.

From NATO to Deep Space

It was only in 1994 when Latvia gained independence from the then crumbling communist block that scientists were able to convert the telescope to less clandestine activities.

As the Soviet army left they thankfully made only superficial attempts to sabotage the equipment, smashing computers, burning papers, pouring acid on the telescope’s motors, and severing cables. Arguably they could have caused a great deal more damage when they abandoned the site and it is to their credit that they didn’t.

There is more to Latvia than Riga

The site now consists of the two RT-32 and RT-16 satellites which were restored by Latvian scientists with the help of the European Union. Guided tours are available and it is possible to explore the site in great detail.

The area is remote and the atmosphere is still rich with an eerie paranoid sense of Cold War history. Anyone waning to explore Latvia beyond the admittedly fantastic confines of Riga should venture to the Irbene Telescope.


[one_half]Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday: 10:00am to dark from March 1st to November 30th[/one_half][one_half_last]Address: VIRAC, Ventspils novads, Ances pag., Irbene, LV-3600[/one_half_last]

[one_half]Price: Free with possible paid guided tours. Only guided tours to the inside of RT-32 and the underground tunnel[/one_half][one_half_last]Website: http://virac.venta.lv/en/[/one_half_last]


Photo credit: Photo 1 by Heikki Mäki.