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Satellite Communications Technology

Animal observation system ICARUS is switched on

(8 July 2019 - DLR) The International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) is a cooperative project between the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) under the leadership of Martin Wikelski from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz.

With the space-based observation system, scientists want to find out more about the life of animals on Earth: on which routes they migrate, under what conditions they live and, above all, how they can best be protected. Once it has been switched on, ICARUS engineers and scientists will check the system components on the ground, on board the International Space Station ISS, as well as the transmitters that collect the animals’ data. ICARUS is expected to be available to the scientific community in autumn or winter 2019 upon completion of all the tests.

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Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and Principal Investigator of the ICARUS project, with a white stork wearing a trial ICARUS transmitter (courtesy: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology/MaxCine)

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ICARUS intends to research global migration flows of animals – small animals such as birds and bats will be the focus at first. Tiny transmitters, which weigh less than five grams and are known as tags, collect information on their migratory behaviour and transmit this to the International Space Station (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. (courtesy: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology/MaxCine)

Miniature transmitters on animals send data to space

The researchers are equipping different animal species with miniature transmitters that send their measurement data to a receiving station in space. The data is then transmitted to a ground station, from where it is sent to the respective research teams. The results are stored in the freely accessible Movebank database, as well as in a counterpart developed by RSC Energia and the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IG-RAS). The ICARUS equipment supports the Russian space research project Uragan (hurricane), developed to adapt Earth observation hardware and methods and to observe potentially dangerous phenomena. Uragan instruments are used to observe Earth’s surface and understand the reasons for changes in animal migration patterns.

On 10 July 2019, the Russian ground control centre will activate the ICARUS antenna and the on-board computer. The on-board computer is already on the ISS and the antenna was mounted on the exterior of the Zvezda module by Russian cosmonauts. A SpaceTech test ground station in Immenstaad on Lake Constance will also commence operations.

Data transmission test to last several months

Over a period of three to four months, the ICARUS scientists will first test the transmission of the data from the transmitters via the ISS to the ground station. By measuring the background noise in the ICARUS frequency range, the researchers want to find out where the transmission of other signals could be disturbed. The engineers will then switch on the ICARUS transmitter on the ISS, which will later be used to program the animal transmitters. The test ground station will then record the transmission times and signal strength. Next, SpaceTech's engineers and their Russian colleagues from RSC Energia will determine the regions of the Earth that will be covered by the ISS as the antenna passes over. The transmitters can only transmit their data into space if they are within the signal cone of the antenna.

To observe the movement of thousands of animals across the globe, large amounts of data must be sent smoothly and safely from the transmitters into space and back again. During the test phase, a simulator will generate artificial transmitter signals which will be sent to the ICARUS module on board during each ISS flyby. With the simulator, researchers can test the transmission of data from individual transmitters – or from hundreds. After all, real transmitters are to send their data from test areas in Germany and Russia into space. The security of data transmission will also be tested.

Scientists around the world will be able to work with ICARUS

Once the tests have been completed and the results evaluated, ICARUS will begin routine operations. By the end of 2019, scientists across the globe should be able to work with ICARUS. The associated research projects on the Russian side will be managed by the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IG-RAS).