Watching wildlife from space, with help from human friends

24 Juli 2019

The news seems dire for wildlife, threatened by climate change and increasingly endangered on earth, but there’s help on the way and right now it’s coming from the International Space Station.

The International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) system was switched on in July and promises to help scientists track species, understand their movement patterns, and better protect them.

Icarus is a cooperative effort between Germany’s space agency, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR), their Russian counterparts at Roscosmos, University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior. It seeks to fit various species with transmitters that can be monitored using satellites once they are launched, and in the meantime relies on the monitoring capacities of the ISS for a test phase.

“For the worldwide observation of thousands of animals, large amounts of data must be sent smoothly and safely from the transmitters into space and back again,” the scientists explain. “During the test phase, a simulator will generate artificial transmitter signals which will be transmitted to the Icarus module on board during the ISS flyby.”

The ISS orbits the Earth 16 times a day and its path shifts some 2,500 kilometers to the west each time. The Icarus receiver antennae, which receive the signals from birds or migrating animals, can “read” an area on earth that measures 30 by 800 km. That means they cover about 80 percent of the planet between the 55th parallels at north and south, with some variations in how often the data can be read.

At the same time, some 400 kilometers below the ISS, specially developed transmitters will send signals from the species under study. These transmitters weigh just five grams and are slightly bigger than a Euro cent coin, but they have the capacity for GPS tracking and the radio signal transmission. The small size is a breakthrough and makes it possible to track common starlings and other small creatures.

“In order for a transmitter not to affect an animal’s behavior or chances of survival, it must be a maximum of five percent of the animal’s body weight. Studies have shown that such transmitters do not have any measurable effect on the animals,” said the Icarus researchers. “The important thing is that the transmitters are light and small enough and do not impede the animal’s movements. They must also be discreet, so that they do not make the animals easy prey for predators.”

Once the data arrives in space, it is sent to a central ground station in Moscow and then relayed to the research center in Germany. It’s from there that scientists all over the world will be able to access the data, with the exception of sensitive data – on some endangered species, for example – that will remain protected.

The Icarus team says it expects live data to be available to scientists by the end of the year, but it plans three or four months of test runs until then. That’s not all though: They want citizen scientists to assist in watching tracked animals – are they eating? are they with friends? – and have developed an app that’s available to the public.

“Anyone watching a transmitting animal in nature can report their observations and thus help provide a better understanding of the movement data of animals,” the scientists said. The Animal Tracker is available in English and German, and is free from the Google Play or Apple iTunes stores.


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