The Russian Woodpecker & the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

duga-3When I got my Novice ticket in 1978, the Russian Woodpecker was at its peak. Developed to detect ICBM launches, the over-the-horizon radars known as Duga-1, Duga-2 and Duga-3  caused an incredible amount of QRM on the 20- and 40-meter ham bands. Even Radio Moscow was not immune.

The system became operational in 1976 amid much speculation as to its purpose and operated with an estimated transmitter power of 10 megawatts anywhere (and everywhere!) between 7 and 19 MHz. Transmit times were brief as radars go – typically 7 minutes at a time, then a QSY elsewhere.

Hams, irritated by the QRM, formed the Russian Woodpecker Hunting Club whose goal was to QRM the QRMer by sending properly timed pulses on the radar’s frequency. Reports of effectiveness vary but no doubt it felt good to fight back.

All three sites that made up the Russian Woodpecker were actually located in Ukraine with each transmitter and receiver site being located approximately 35 km apart.

The woodpecker’s antenna was a monster – 150m tall, 500m wide and weighing in at 14,000 tons. It still stands today in that post-modern wasteland known as the Chernoby Exclusion Zone. Call it a new kind of radio-activity where cesium-137 and strontium-90 have replaced good old-fashioned RF as the primary emission of note.

As of October 2013, Ukrainian officials now allow tourists to visit the site of Duga-3 within the Exclusion Zone. Base-jumping, anyone?!

Interestingly, the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred in 1986 – Duga-3 didn’t go QRT until 1989. Hmm…

Check out the video of the antenna below. To see some amazing (and very melancholy) photos of many a DXer’s Cold War foe, click here.



  8 comments for “The Russian Woodpecker & the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

  1. Paul
    July 31, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    That was Russian’s HAARP ;)
    BTW – this 150m tall antenna is not the woodpecker itself – it’s receiving antenna only. The transmitting antenna was 60 km away and much smaller – 85m at most. Now the transmitter site and antenna are fully scrapped for metal.

  2. Paul
    July 31, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    Nice post! One more correction, the receiving antenna was not able to handle the frequency range so two antennas were built – one for lower bands and one smaller for upper:

    here is a pic:

  3. July 31, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    That’s an impressive pic – thanks for the update.

  4. July 31, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Here’s a tour operator (“personal dosimeters permitted”) with a visit to the radar site available:

    I think I’ll pass…

    • Paul VA3PAW
      July 31, 2014 at 7:02 pm

      I think there’s less exposure than a single CT scan would give. Anyway, there are lots of HD documentaries available to watch and it’s unlikely the tour operator would allow to QRV from there so I agree it’s not worth the long flight and visit…

  5. Mike KJ4Z
    August 8, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Interesting to see they’ve opened up Duga. I visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone twice (2010, 2011) and we had to make our requests 6 months in advance. Virtually everything we requested to see we were allowed to visit, including going inside the sarcophagus itself, but our requests to visit Duga were repeatedly denied. I don’t think they ever gave us a reason. Even so, it was clearly visible off on the horizon and quite impressive!


    • August 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

      That would be an amazing site to see but I’m curious why you went twice?

      • Mike KJ4Z
        August 8, 2014 at 11:02 am

        Well, first of all, it’s really a beautiful and fascinating place and there’s too much to see on one trip. Also, you never know when the political situation in that part of the world might change and keep you from returning, so best to do it when you can. On the 2011 trip, we wandered down to Odessa, and I wanted to go see some of the historic sites in the Crimea. In the end, the group decided to go to Moldova instead… and who knows if I’ll ever see the Crimea now!

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