During the Soviet era, this site was dubbed The Starlet; it was extremely secret and served to intercept radio signals and telephone conversations in NATO countries. Soon after Latvia’s independence was restored, in 1994, the Russian military personnel left this place. However, as they withdrew, they smashed the equipment, poured acid into the electric motors and chopped up the cables. Fortunately, there had been no order to blow up the enormous antenna dishes.
With assistance from the European Union, the army radar has been transformed to serve scientific purposes: now the 32-metre wide antenna, weighing 600 tonnes, is pointed towards the most remote corners of space. It is the largest radio telescope in Northern Europe, which can “see” sound just like a bat, catches radiation unseen by the human eye and turns it into an image. Astronomers observe the Sun this way, as well as the oldest radiation in existence: particles that originated billions of years ago in the wake of the Big Bang, the moment of the birth of the universe.
A second radio telescope has also been renovated in Irbene (16 metres in diameter), which will soon be used to track the first Latvian satellite, currently being built by Latvian students in cooperation with Germans at the University of Bremen. The military past in Irbene has bequeathed it a number of crumbling structures, about which Juris Žagars, doctor of physics and head of the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre, quips: “You could shoot a horror movie called Frankenstein and the KGB here without having to spend a single lat for the sets.”
As the Irbene radar is no longer a secret military object, it is possible to tour it, with guides also available. The tour includes more than a mere walk around the grounds: it is also possible to climb up to the external platforms on the upper floors of the telescopes and relish the beautiful views extending across the Kurzeme forests. Since the spring of 2009, it is also possible to go for a walk in the underground tunnel connecting the larger radio telescope with the technical headquarters.
In the area surrounding Irbene, there are other noteworthy objects. Almost nine kilometres further down the Kurzeme coast, you will find the Oviši lighthouse, built in 1905. It is the oldest surviving navigational structure in Latvia. The same distance away, there is Miķeļbāka, the tallest lighthouse in the Baltics, rising to 62 metres. The scenic Irbe River flows past the Irbene radar, popular with boating enthusiasts who like to retreat from the bustle of civilisation; not far from here, there is also the Slītere national park, Cape Kolka, and the unique Livonian Coast, which is the cultural and historical homeland of the Livonian people.