Observing small animals from space will soon be reality
Billions of songbirds migrate from one continent to another every year. Many species of bat and innumerable species of insect also cover large distances – and also possibly change continents in the process. We unfortunately have no accurate knowledge about this, as scientists have not yet been able to follow small and tiny animals during their long journey. Yet such knowledge plays an important role in understanding how pathogens are spread by their hosts, for example. In order to remedy this global lack of knowledge on the spread of small and tiny animals and their particular migratory behaviour, the ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) project was inaugurated in 2012 by an international consortium of scientists. The ratification of a bilateral agreement between the Russian space agency ROSKOSMOS and the DLR Space Administration means a decisive step has now been taken towards satellite-based remote sensing of animal migration from space.
“The agreement with ROSKOSMOS ensures, among other things, that Russia’s contribution, especially the installation on the Russian part of the International Space Station, matches the German contributions,” explains Martin Wikelski. The Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (MPIO) in Radolfzell and full professor at the University of Constance is the key driving force behind this globally unique research project, which the European Science Foundation assessed as being scientifically excellent in 2009 in the ELIPS programme of the European Space Agency (ESA), and which the DLR Space Administration has funded since March 2012 as a German national project. “The public funding is an important step towards an independent ICARUS satellite constellation in a low Earth orbit which will enable us to make global, long-term observations of small and tiny animals from space with comprehensive geographic coverage,” says Wikelski.
The major project kicked off in March 2012 with a feasibility study and has been in the implementation phase since August 2013. The Space Administration of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is funding ICARUS as part of the “National space programme space station and manned spaceflight”. In parallel with the DLR funding measures, the Max Planck Society has been providing € 1.7 million from its own funds since December 2013 for the miniaturisation of the ICARUS radio chip. Funding of approx. € 19 million is available for the years to come to develop the technologies required for the project. The main contractor and technical project manager of the MPIO is SpaceTech GmbH, Immenstaad, Lake Constance, which has a very high level of competence in the field of aerospace technology.
The experimental ICARUS system is expected to be installed on the Russian service module of the international Space Station ISS in spring 2016. The scientists hope the data generated by ICARUS will provide them with revolutionary findings on the life, behaviour, vital functions and death of animals on our planet. The Russian side of the scientific collaboration is headed by Dr. Grigori Tertitski, a biologist at the Institute for Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is currently coordinating 16 major projects of Russian ecologists, who will use the ICARUS technology from 2016 onwards. The globally collated data allow conclusions to be drawn on the spread of diseases (zoonoses), findings on climate change, and the forecasting of disasters. “There is no doubt that the anticipated research findings will be of inestimable importance for humankind, and ultimately for our life on Earth,” emphasises Martin Wikelski.