Icarus flies faster, further
The tracking system has begun testing its new satellite receiver that will continue uninterrupted tracking of animals from space
Last month, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) began testing an experimental tracking system in space — signaling that the pioneering program for monitoring wildlife from space is set to continue. The new Icarus receiver will fly on a very small satellite, known as a CubeSat, to collect data from animals carrying lightweight sensors. For the first time, Icarus will have total global coverage, detecting birds, bats, marine reptiles, and land mammals anywhere on Earth. The current testing phase lays the groundwork for the operational system, which will commence data collection in October 2024.
Icarus was a technological and scientific breakthrough in tracking the movement of wildlife from space. In 2020, an Icarus receiver housed on the International Space Station began collecting data from animals wearing miniature transmitters. In its first year of operation, the prototype system captured the behavior and migration of hundreds of animals across the globe—including in difficult to reach places like over oceans, in deserts, and in rainforests. But in March 2022, the Russian war on Ukraine began; and Icarus, which was a partnership between the German and Russian space agencies, paused operations.
Fifteen months later, Icarus is on track to continue. An experimental satellite has been successfully launched into orbit from Vandenberg in California, USA, with the aim of testing signal function and other capabilities. This experimental phase paves the way for the final system, which will be built in February 2024 and launched in October the same year.
The new space system will move Icarus’s mission forward with a range of improvements, including greater energy efficiency, faster data transmission, and total global coverage. That means that animals anywhere on Earth can communicate valuable information about their own health and the health of their environment. The goal is to create an “internet of animals” that can tell researchers how ecosystems and climate is changing, and how animals are responding to those changes. “Icarus has flown back into space,” says Martin Wikelski, who leads the project at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior. “And now, we have an even better view of life on Earth than before.”
A smaller, more powerful receiver
Icarus continues its successful “internet of things” concept of tracking wildlife from space: lightweight sensors attached to animals will transmit data about their wearers’ movement and behavior to a receiver in space, which in turn transmit the data back to Earth. The project’s first receiver and computer were housed on the International Space Station (ISS). In the new system, all space-based infrastructure is packaged on a very small satellite, known as a CubeSat.
Measuring ten centimeters on all sides and weighing about two kilograms, the new Icarus system is smaller, more efficient, and more powerful. While the ISS infrastructure comprised a three-meter-long antenna and desktop-sized computer, the new Icarus system has miniaturized this to a twenty-centimeter foldable antenna and a thumb-sized computer. Compared to its ISS predecessor, the new Icarus receiver will consume one tenth of the energy but can read four times more animal sensors simultaneously. In this way, scientists can download data and remotely reprogram sensors faster. “We’ve taken advantage of technological leaps over the last years to streamline our operations,” says Wikelski who is also a professor at the University of Konstanz. “Now, scientists can communicate with sensors much more efficiently via the Icarus receiver in space.”
The new Icarus system is sponsored by the Max Planck Society. It will be built by Talos, a Munich-based company that develops satellite-based tracking technology for research, agriculture, and logistics. The system is scheduled for completion in February 2024. It will then be added to a CubeSat spacecraft that is planned to launch into orbit in October the same year.
Flying on a very small spacecraft
CubeSats are a type of very small satellite made up of ten-centimeter cubes known as units (U). These small cubes can be combined to build CubeSats ranging from 1U to 16U in size. Being small and relatively inexpensive, CubeSats are increasingly being used by universities and institutes to launch research missions that would previously not have been possible. For its 2024 mission into space, Icarus will be part of a larger 8U payload, owned by the Space Research Center at the University of the Bundeswehr Munich, that will comprise several scientific experiments. Together, they will be hosted on a 16U CubeSat operated by the Munich-based Startup Company OroraTech. “After ten years of cooperation, we’re delighted to be partnering with the UniBw on our first ICARUS CubeSat payload,” says Wikelski. “By joining forces with the UniBw payload, Icarus benefits from the considerable housekeeping functions they will provide on OroraTech’s host satellite.”
The University’s of the Bundeswehr hosted payload is part of the SeRANIS mission, a pioneering space science mission that is supported through the dtec.bw Center for Digitization and Technology Research in Germany’s economic stimulus program to overcome the Covid-19 crisis. Says Andreas Knopp, SeRANIS program lead, space communications scientist, and longtime Icarus partner: “By exploiting cutting-edge communications technology, Icarus has been an unrivaled program for wildlife conservation. We are glad and honored to continue our first-class research path by providing a seat to space for our next-generation Icarus receiver.”
Communicating with animals across the globe
The Icarus host CubeSat, like the ISS and many other satellites, will be in low-earth orbit—or “LEO”. At this comparatively short distance from Earth, the CubeSat can circumvent the planet multiple times per day, meaning that it can cover any point on the Earth’s surface daily. By contrast, the ISS does not cover arctic and polar regions beyond southern Sweden in the North and the southern tip of Chile in the South. With its improved orbital path, the Icarus receiver can collect data from sensors no matter where the animal might be—in desserts, on polar ice fields, over oceans, or in the sky. Says Wikelski: “With total global coverage, we have strengthened our mission of global monitoring of animal biodiversity. Now, we can also monitor the polar regions that are the most at risk due to climate change.”
With a single Icarus receiver in space, data will be read out once per day, thereby providing researchers with regular updates on animal behavior. In the future, the system will be extended by a network of receivers on satellites, which will increase the number of daily data readouts. Plans are currently underway for a second CubeSat receiver to be launched in 2025 and a third in 2026. The goal is to have enough receivers in space to deliver near real-time data transmission—a result that would have important implications for conservation. “Real-time data will provide conservation managers around the globe the option to safeguard biodiversity much more efficiently,” says Wikelski.
Future plans also include improved sensor design. Currently, sensors weighing only a few grams record an animals GPS location, movement and surrounding environment, such as temperature, humidity and pressure. New features include two-way communication, so that sensors can be reprogrammed by instructions sent remotely via space. And, onboard artificial intelligence can help “decide” what data should be collected based on the behavior of the animal. Sensors will also shrink again in size and weight to about half the current values. Says Wikelski: “We’ve spent the last year optimizing sensor design and building in advances in AI. What we have now is akin to a quantum leap forward: a system that helps the animal tell us their most important stories.”