Hidden in the dense coastal forests of Slītere a mysterious ex-Soviet spy center lays now used for science. Almost everyone including me who entered the site of the two large radio telescopes called Irbene, are amazed by the surrealistic atmosphere made by the abandoned ghost town and two large radio dishes in the middle of nowhere. This article will tell more about this site.
As the Cold War between US and USSR entered above Space, the need for Space espionage made Soviets to design ways to track and decode signals from US satellites. The project begun in 1967 when the remote areas of the Ventspils district was allocated to secret buildup of object codenamed “Starlet”. The location was chosen because of dense low populated forest areas of Slītere that also was part of the Soviet border zone – so that no stranger could not ever discover this object.
The main object for space intelligence was a 32-metre, fully steerable parabolic, centimetre-wave range antenna (RT-32) and a 16-metre diameter antenna (RT-16). The bigger one is the largest radio telescope in northern Europe and the world’s eighth largest. Both objects are connected with an underground tunnel. In Soviet times there were more than two such antennas, even six that were later dissembled by the Soviets. Around the antennas a secret town was built for working stuff and guards. A 9 story apartment blocks, barracks, kindergarten and even school was built there. The working stuff could not leave the town without special permissions and the army made sure no one ever made close to the site.
It’s still not widely known what the KGB was doing there. The radio telescopes were probably used to spy on NATO Space communications, satellites, space craft and also aircraft. It is said that the antennas were so sensitive that they could track a mobile phone signal if it was sent from one of the Saturn’s moons and follow the aircraft that flies near the Horizon. The great importance that Soviet secret service gave to this object was clearly shown after the fall of Soviet Union. As in case of Skrunda Radar station the Russian government wanted to keep this object in their possession for unlimited time. However, Latvian government demanded to leave all Soviet objects at once. The object was only revealed to the public in 1993. When Latvian members of the Office for controlling the withdrawal of the Russian army entered the site, for their astonishment they found the members of the Russian secret service the FSB rushing to disable the object.
The FSB removed all the smaller antennas, and left only two bigger ones. But, they made them unusable, by cutting all the cables, hammering nails in the wires and spilled acid in to equipment. Worse, than that some leading figures of the Latvian delegation for the talks of the withdrawal suggested to destroy two remaining antennas in the same matter as the Skrunda Radar Station. The historian and diplomat Mārtiņš Virsis was one of them who nearly convinced the Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs to do this. However, the object was rescued by the pressure from Latvian scientists who recognized the importance of this object for their studies.
However, it was a heavy start, as the Russians had damaged both objects and left no blueprints and information about how this object works. In 1994 the site was taken under control by the Latvian Academy of Sciences. The antenna renewal work started and in December the power was restored. In 1995 the damage made by the Russians was slowly taken away- the nails were removed and acid torn equipment was repaired. In September 19, the Latvian Academy of Sciences decides to found “Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre” (VIRAC) as a working unit inside the Academy. In 1996 the first space signals were tracked – the Moon and Sun and radio emission at 12. 2 GHz during the partial solar eclipse was monitored. In 1997 the receiver completion was made for 10.5 to 11,5 GHz. In 1999 the revival of second RT-16 antenna begun.
In last decades the VIRAC become connected to the Venstpils University. The work continued and today both antennas are fully operational, but more work still needs to be done to comply them with the international standards. Latest news about the actions of the VIRAC was the tracking of near to Earth flying asteroid DA14 in 16 February 2013. This proves that the VIRAC can now took part in important space research projects. VIRAC works together with other space centers in EU and Russia. VIRAC shows example of how with limited funds and knowledge the seemingly unusable ex-Soviet object can be restored and used for civil matters. The same could have been done with the Skrunda Radar Station.
The ghost town “Starlet” however is another story. After all working personnel abandoned it became dilapidated. Building became empty all windows were broken and everything from the buildings has been taken away. The Starlet became a sort of “mini Chernobyl”. Its only inhabitants were homeless people or scavengers looking for metal parts or other valuable pieces. In 2012 the town was set to be demolished. However, the works were soon canceled as the main supervisor of the town was brutally murdered by the locals. Because of that the town is closed to visitors.
On 2014 the main antenna dish of the RT-32 radiotelescope was removed for restoration. The antenna had suffered age deformations and needed to be restored and adjusted for further science work. On June 10 2015 antenna was restored and placed back on the telescope mast. Telescope is set to fully work again and pick up wide signals from space and serve the VIRAC in its science endeavors.