Rural landmarks hiding science fiction technology

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STANDING 120ft high and spanning nine floors, the radar base of RAF Fylingdales has been an instantly recognisable landmark on the North York Moors since the Cold War era.

The location is 1,000ft above sea level, and provides an ideal vantage point to send out radar signals up to 3,000 miles into space.

Construction began in 1960 and was cloaked in secrecy, with a procession of trucks winding its way across the moors while carrying equipment which had been imported across the Atlantic from New Jersey. The cost of building the RAF site was £45m – with the US contributing about £36m – and RAF Fylingdales became operational three years later in September 1963.

The air base’s original radar system was housed in three iconic “golf balls” which were each 84ft in diameter. The system was cumbersome – each of the golf balls weighed in at 112 tonnes – but it was nonetheless extremely reliable.

The mechanical radars were maintained for more than 28 years and were only out of action for 13 hours during that period.

However, the need to modernise RAF Fylingdales had become apparent by the mid-1980s with an increasing number of satellites to monitor in Earth’s orbit.

The original technology had become difficult and expensive to maintain, and the UK and US governments were aware that there was a requirement to provide 360 degree radar coverage from the RAF station.

An agreement was announced by the two allies on May 22, 1986, to carry out a £160m modernisation of the base, with the US paying £112m towards the overall cost.

A workforce of up to 350 contractors built the Solid State Phased Array Radar – known by the acronym SSPAR – which is now housed in the famous three-sided building that can be seen for miles around.

Throughout the intervening years, the pyramid structure has been afforded a range of nicknames, including The Temple of Doom, The Cheese Grater and The Sand Castle.

Each face of the radar is 84ft across and contain 2,560 transmit and receive modules and antennas that provide the constant coverage.

The overall mean power output from the three faces of the pyramid is about 2.4 megawatts, and standing next to the radar circuits provides a nauseating and disorientating experience due to the massive amount of electricity that is being generated.

Much of the equipment still in use at RAF Fylingdales dates back to when it was originally constructed, giving the radar base a slightly kitsch feel reminiscent of a 1960s science fiction series.

A power station that is situated on RAF Fylingdales provides a secure source of electricity from seven gas engines with a further four diesel engines providing back-up.

The facility would be able to provide enough electricity to serve Whitby and the surrounding Esk Valley, and 85 per cent of the power generated is used by the radar.