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The ICARUS antenna is on its way to the International Space Station

(13 February 2018 - DLR) Relief was evident at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) in Bonn, and at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (MPIO) in Radolfzell on Lake Constance. A Russian Soyuz 2-1A launcher and a Progress cargo spacecraft carrying the antenna block for the German-Russian project ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) set off for the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits Earth at an altitude of 400 kilometres.

Lift-off occurred on 13 February 2018 at 09:13 CET (14:13 local time) and Progress is scheduled to reach the ISS on 15 February 2018 at 11:45 CET. "The Russian Progress MS-08 cargo spacecraft carries approximately 2500 kilograms of supplies, of which about 200 kilograms are allotted to ICARUS – the most technically advanced project for animal observation from space," explains Johannes Weppler, ICARUS Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration in Bonn. "We are very happy that ICARUS will soon enter its operational phase after several years of intensive preparation and that the hardware required for this – the antenna and on board computer will soon both be at the Zvezda module in the Russian sector of the space station." The computer was already transported to the ISS by a Soyuz launcher on 14 October 2017.

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Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the head of the ICARUS project, with a stork fitted with a test version of an ICARUS transmitter or ‘tag’. (courtesy: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology/MaxCine)

ICARUS intends to research the global migration flows of animals – at the focus first of all are small animals such as birds, bats or flying foxes. Tiny transmitters, which weigh less than five grams and are known as tags, collect information on their migratory behaviour and transmit this to the ISS. "Entered into a database, the aim is to help protect animals, better understand Earth's climate and the spread of diseases as well as helping to practise more sustainable agriculture," says Weppler, clarifying the purpose of the project. This is because animals – in contrast to humans – often react much earlier and with greater sensitivity to changes in the environment.

The ICARUS computer on the ISS is due to begin operations in April. If this works as expected, extravehicular activity (EVA) to install the antenna on the Zvezda module is planned for the cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Prokopyev. Prokopyev is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station with the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst in June. The antenna block consists of three receiving antennas up to two metres long and one transmitting antenna. The receiving antennas can receive data from more than 15 million transmitters worldwide, anywhere on Earth.

On Earth, tags attached to the animals collect information on their behaviour. To do this, they store GPS coordinates, acceleration and environmental data. To save energy and thereby prolong their operating lifetime, the transmitting and receiving modules of the tags are put into sleep mode for most of the time. The data acquired during the current ISS orbit is stored in the small devices, and they only ‘wake up’ when the space station flies over them. Then, they send their data to the antenna in orbit. The information is decoded by the ICARUS computer and transferred to the ISS ground station in Moscow. From there, it is fed into the scientific database, which was developed by the Max Planck Institute and the University of Konstanz. The overall system, mainly developed by small and medium-sized German companies, is designed to be more accurate and reliable than any previous systems and, additionally, supply greatly improved data about the animals. German and Russian scientists expect that they will not only obtain new evidence about animal lifestyles from the data, but also insights into the spread of epidemics (for example, bird flu and Ebola), the impact of climate change and the interaction between animal migrations and food security in critical regions.

The head of the project is Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. Together with his team, he has been working towards launching ICARUS for many years: "This is a milestone and a unique experience for me. Starting from June 2018, we will first fit our miniature transmitters to approximately 300 blackbirds in 35 places in Germany with. In doing so, we want to find out where they live, where they fly to, where they die and how we can protect them."

ICARUS − technology demonstration for the study of animal migration

Numerous scientists across the world, as well as the space agencies from Germany and Russia, are cooperating for the ICARUS project. The Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell on Lake Constance leads the international scientific consortium. Since December 2013, the Max Planck Society has been financing the miniaturisation of the transmitters for the project. The DLR Space Administration is supporting testing of the new transmitters and the associated transmitting and receiving installation on the ISS with funds from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie, BMWi). The test operation of ICARUS on the ISS is planned to last two years. Immediately after the extravehicular activity (EVA) planned for 8 August 2018 and the activation and testing of the ICARUS receiver, projects with blackbirds, pigeons, ducks and flying foxes will be launched – a number of projects have already been selected worldwide. Several thousand animals will be fitted with tags. At the same time, 16 scientific projects are beginning in Russia. If the ICARUS technology proves itself, steps will be taken to reduce the size of the transmitters even further. In addition to this, a compact transmitting and receiving hardware system is to be developed that could fly 'piggyback' on other satellites as a hosted payload so that the observation network can become more comprehensive and reliable.