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.