Radio telescopes can swim too

The radio telescopes at Irbene are quite impressive – the biggest one, RT-32, has a 32-metre diameter dish making it the 8th largest in the world. Sounds astonishing, right? But how about taking this dish and maybe couple of them and making them float? Or in other words, how about installing these gigantic antennas on a deck of a ship. And now imagine that for this job we choose a vessel as large as the legendary Titanic. What would something like that look like? Well, Soviets did it several times. They had eight of these floating space control-monitoring systems in total, the most striking of which was none other but the mighty “Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin”. To be honest, these radio telescopes were a little smaller than the ones at Irbene – 25.5 meters in diameter, but I guess we can ignore that given the effort invested.

Irbene ship

In its heyday “Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin” with its 75 different antennas and the 320-meter hull was the largest such ship in the world. Soviets started to build these vessels in the 60s and continued until the early 90s. The purpose for them was to support the Soviet space programme. And here is why – although a large network of ground tracking stations already existed, it was not enough to ensure good communication between a spacecraft and the Earth at all times. After the launch of the first artificial satellite, the Soviets noticed that of 1/3 of the time they lost the contact with the satellite while it was flying over the oceans.  These were called the “blind spots” and from the territory of the USSR they were “invisible”, which means that flight took place blindly, without control. The solution for this was building telescopes in the ocean, but since the Soviets did not have islands in the necessary locations, they opted for teaching the telescopes to “swim”. Subsequently, with the help of this “space fleet”, all the blind spots become visible.

Kremlin in the middle of Skrunda-1

Skrunda symbol
At Skrunda-1

Skrunda-1 can sometimes puzzle its visitors. One reason would be the Russian symbols that can still be found in couple of places in the town like the famous inscription “Glory to the Motherland” alongside Russian flag and the double-headed eagle serving as a wall decoration. Symbols connected to former Russian Empire were banned during the Soviet times. Karl Marx himself argued that workers do not have a fatherland. The same internationalism was later “marketed” by Bolsheviks in pre-Soviet Russian Empire. So, why so distinct nationalistic symbols in a truly Soviet environment? Well, it has to be noted that Skrunda-1 was socialistic only until the fall of the Soviet Union. The military settlement continued its existence after the workers’ empire had already been buried. It was no longer the Soviet Union but the newly founded Russian Federation that called the shots in the town for the next 8 years. Symbols changed. Of course some things remained like the eternal Lenin’s statue in the centre of the town.

Another symbol that persistently continued to adorn the town was a lavishly decorated large metal Soviet star with a picture of the Kremlin in the centre. This, of course, did not have to change as the capital of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation happened to be the same, and the seat of the government stayed where it was. However, what was not removed by the officials, found itself in the hands of Soviet heritage hunters. Nowadays we are left only with photos.

Visiting the town after Latvia regained the independence, did offer a surreal feeling. As a visitor of the town in the 90s mentioned in his memories of the place, crossing the checkpoint was like crossing a border – you left Latvia and entered a completely different world that apart from flags had missed the end of the Soviet times. This feeling was reinforced by the constant supervision the visitors experienced. Latvian government officials were especially closely monitored being escorted by even four Russian officers at once. This was their territory and their rules until the dying days of October 1999.