Ears for Icarus

February 13, 2018, Max Planck Society
Observing animals from space: the antenna of the Icarus system was successfully transported to ISS. Credit: DLR / MPG

On 13 February, a Russian rocket carried the antenna of the Icarus mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The Icarus on-board computer was thus joined by another key component of the orbiting animal tracking system. Using the system developed by scientists from the Max Planck Society in cooperation with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the German Aerospace Center and the University of Konstanz, researchers around the world will be able to study the movements of animals and determine the conditions in which they live.

The Russian Soyuz Progress rocket, which lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan today at 9:13 a.m. Central European Time, was carrying a precious scientific cargo: the Icarus antennas, which weigh nearly 200 kilogrammes. "The successful launch marked another mission milestone. A hitch at this point would have been unthinkable and could have set the Icarus project back years. There was therefore a collective sigh of relief when everything went to plan. After the launch, we joyfully toasted our success - of course with a compulsory glass of vodka," says Martin Wikelski, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell and head of the Icarus Mission.

The antennas delivered to the ISS comprise three receiving antennas measuring up to two metres in length and one transmitting . The receiving antennas can pick up data from 15 million or more transmitters worldwide, moving anywhere on Earth. These miniature transmitter tags, which weigh in at just five grammes each, are based on a new technology and were developed specially for the Icarus mission. Even small animals such as can now be tagged and tracked. The first animals to be fitted with the new Icarus tags will be blackbirds. "Starting in June, we will tag around 300 blackbirds with our mini-transmitters at 35 locations in Germany. They will help us to learn where the birds live, where they fly to, and where they die," Wikelski explains.

The internet of animals: how the animal observatory system Icarus works. Credit: MPI for Ornithology

The transmitting antennas, on the other hand, will send configuration commands to the Icarus tags, as well as precise orbital data about when the tags will next be in contact with the receiving station. The antennas, which have receivers mounted on two fold-out vanes, receive signals from an area measuring 30 by 800 kilometres. Because the trajectory of the space station moves 2,500 kilometres to the west each time it circles the globe, the receiving antennas can cover up to 80 percent of the Earth's surface in a day.

In early August, the two Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Sergei Prokopiev will set out on a five-hour spacewalk to mount the antennas on the outside of the Russian service module of ISS. This will launch a roughly two-month test phase to check that all the components of the system are working correctly. If all goes well, Icarus will begin scientific operations by autumn of this year. Around 150 research projects around the globe plan to track the migrations of a wide range of animals, including sea turtles, jaguars, bats and migratory birds.

Explore further: Researcher discusses successful mission to transport the Icarus antennas to the International Space Station

Related Stories

Icarus lifts off

October 17, 2017

After the launch of a Soyuz 2 rocket scheduled for October 12 was postponed by two days, the carrier rocket yesterday docked with the ISS. On board: the Icarus board computer, the future brain of the German-Russian animal ...

GPS transmitters can protect animals from poaching

August 7, 2015

The killing of the lion Cecil in a national park in Zimbabwe by a big-game hunter has sparked worldwide outrage. Researchers at the University of Oxford had outfitted Cecil with a GPS collar to monitor his behaviour. It was ...

Migration pays off for songbirds

November 21, 2017

It is estimated that there are over one-and-a-half billion songbirds living in Europe alone. Around half of them embark on their journey southwards in autumn over a period of less than twelve nights. It is warmer there and ...

Recommended for you

First science with ALMA's highest-frequency capabilities

August 17, 2018

The ALMA telescope in Chile has transformed how we see the universe, showing us otherwise invisible parts of the cosmos. This array of incredibly precise antennas studies a comparatively high-frequency sliver of radio light: ...

Magnetized inflow accreting to center of Milky Way galaxy

August 17, 2018

Are magnetic fields an important guiding force for gas accreting to a supermassive black hole (SMBH) like the one that our Milky Way galaxy hosts? The role of magnetic fields in gas accretion is little understood, and trying ...

Another way for stellar-mass black holes to grow larger

August 17, 2018

A trio of researchers with The University of Hong Kong, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and Northwestern University in the U.S., has come up with an alternative theory to explain how some ...

Six things about Opportunity's recovery efforts

August 17, 2018

NASA's Opportunity rover has been silent since June 10, when a planet-encircling dust storm cut off solar power for the nearly-15-year-old rover. Now that scientists think the global dust storm is "decaying"—meaning more ...

Sprawling galaxy cluster found hiding in plain sight

August 16, 2018

MIT scientists have uncovered a sprawling new galaxy cluster hiding in plain sight. The cluster, which sits a mere 2.4 billion light years from Earth, is made up of hundreds of individual galaxies and surrounds an extremely ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.