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Duga radar: Enormous abandoned antenna hidden in forests near Chernobyl

Pavlo Fedykovych, 03/11/2019

it's semi-ruined and is under threat of total destruction  

The peaceful untouched forest north of Ukraine's capital, Kiev, is a perfect spot to enjoy the outdoors -- save for one fact.

It contains the radiation-contaminated Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, established in 1986 after the world's worst nuclear disaster sent a wave of radiation fallout across Europe.

Since 2011 it's been a major draw for adventurous tourists, but the forests here conceal another legacy of the Cold War, with a far more sinister and mysterious reputation.

The Duga radar.

Though once a closely guarded secret, this immense structure can be seen for miles around, rearing up through the mist over the horizon -- a surreal sight.

From a distance, it appears to be a gigantic wall. On close inspection, it's an enormous, dilapidated structure made up of hundreds of huge antennas and turbines.

The Duga radar (which translates as "The Arc") was once one of the most powerful military facilities in the Soviet Union's communist empire.

It still stands a towering 150 meters (492 feet) high and stretches almost 700 meters in length. But, left to rot in the radioactive winds of Chernobyl, it's now in a sad state of industrial decay.

Anyone exploring the undergrowth at its feet will stumble upon neglected vehicles, steel barrels, broken electronic devices and metallic rubbish, the remainders of the hasty evacuation shortly after the nuclear disaster.

Long-range missile threat

For decades, the Duga has stood in the middle of nowhere with no one to witness its slow demise. Since 2013, visitors exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have been permitted access to the radar installation as part of a guided group.

Even those aware of its presence are still struck by the sheer scale of it, says Yaroslav Yemelianenko, director of Chernobyl Tour, which conducts trips to the Duga.

"Tourists are overwhelmed by the enormous size of the installation and its aesthetic high-tech beauty," he tells CNN Travel. "No one expects that it is that big.

"They feel very sorry that it's semi-ruined and is under threat of total destruction," he adds.

Even decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story behind the Duga still poses more questions than answers, its true purpose not fully understood.

Doomed to failure

Construction of the Duga began in 1972 when Soviet scientists looking for ways to mitigate long-range missile threats came up with the idea of building a huge over-the-horizon-radar, that would bounce signals off the ionosphere to peer over the Earth's curvature.

Despite the gigantic scale of the project, it transpired the scientists lacked full understanding of how the ionosphere works -- unwittingly dooming it to failure before it was even built.

Some of what we know today about the Duga -- also known as Chernobyl-2 -- comes from Volodymyr Musiyets, a former commander of the radar complex.

"The Chernobyl-2 object, as a part of the anti-missile and anti-space defense of the Soviet military, was created with a sole purpose," he told the Ukrainian newspaper Fakty, "to detect the nuclear attack on the USSR in the first two three minutes after the launch of the ballistic missiles."

The Duga radar was only a signal receiver, the transmitting center was built some 60 kilometers away in a town called Lubech-1, now also abandoned.

These top-secret facilities were protected with extensive security measures.

Wild speculations

To confuse their "enemies," Soviet command often designated such installations with numbers or fake identities.

On Soviet maps, the Duga radar was marked as a children's camp (there's even a bizarre bus stop on the road to one facility decorated with a bear mascot from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Legend has it that Phil Donahue, one of the first US journalists to be granted access to Chernobyl after the disaster, asked his official guide about the surreal sight of the Duga on the horizon and was told it was an unfinished hotel.

When it was in operation, according to Musiyets, the Duga supposedly used short radio waves capable of traveling thousands of kilometers using a technique called "over-the-horizon" radiolocation to detect the exhaust flames of launching missiles.

In 1976 the world heard for the first time the eerie woodpecker-like repetitive pulse coming from the transmitters.

Conspiracy theories followed instantly, generating Western media headlines about mind and weather control.

 
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