Boffins at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology are finally ready to switch on Icarus – a system that will track the migration of animals by using an antenna installed at the International Space Station (ISS).
On the ground, scientists have been equipping hundreds of animals with miniature satellite transmitters. On Wednesday, astronauts will flip the switch aboard the ISS and start operation of the ground station in Immenstaad, Germany.
Following extensive tests using simulated transmitters, the system will be made available to the scientific community before the end of the year.
Icarus (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) is a collaboration between German and Russian scientists in the works since 2002. It involves Russian space agency Roskosmos, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, among others.
As part of the project, Russian cosmonauts installed the three-metre antenna – and its onboard computer – on an ISS module called Zvezda (star) during a spacewalk in August 2018.
The ISS will collect signals from special lightweight transmitters, designed by German space equipment specialist SpaceTech, weighing less than five grams each, and powered by the Sun. Besides GPS, these transmitters are also equipped with accelerometers, temperature, pressure and humidity sensors.
The space station will then beam the measurement data to a ground station, where it will be processed and made freely available to anyone through the Movebank animal tracking database. This obviously excludes data on endangered species – you wouldn't want to make things any easier for poachers.
Today, most animal-tagging projects focus on a single species, in a small geographic area. Satellite tracking is possible, but this is currently achieved through the outdated Argos system, in use since 1978 and limited to larger animals. In comparison, Icarus can track beasties as light as 100g in body weight.
The Icarus project hopes to apply modern tech to track up to 200,000 individual animals worldwide. Initial targets include bears, elephants, antelopes, wildebeest, giraffes, zebras and leopards; the team at Max Planck Institute for Ornithology is obviously most interested in birds, and the sensors can even track fish.
"Icarus could do for our understanding of planet Earth what the human genome project with its decoding of human genetic material did for genetics," the project's website states.
Data obtained by the project will help establish migration patterns, response to environmental changes, and whether (and how) animals can predict natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – there's plenty of anecdotal evidence, but this has never been decisively proven.
"The animals have evolved for millions of years, their senses are tuned to the environment, they have better hardware: their noses are better, their ears are better, and they also have better sensory systems to deal with this information," Martin Wikelski, managing director at Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and project leader, said in 2018.
"If we take many of those animals together, then we have a network of intelligent, distributed sensors that have evolved to sense the environment." ®