Second attempt – the German-Russian International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) experiment, which is installed on the International Space Station (ISS), will be put into operation on 10 March 2020. Originally planned for July 2019, the start of the experiment was postponed due to a technical malfunction. This joint project between the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), will investigate the routes that various animal species follow during their migrations. Once the system has been switched on, there will be a test phase lasting several months, during which the transmitters and the system components on the ground and on board the ISS will be checked out. After completion of all tests, ICARUS is expected to be available to users in autumn 2020.
Miniature transmitters deliver data into space
With ICARUS, the scientists hope to observe the migratory movements of birds and follow the migration routes of mammals or insects. The information will primarily be used for behavioural research and animal protection measures, but will also provide information on the possible spread of plant seeds or pathogens. The Principal Investigator of the experiment is Martin Wikelski from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Konstanz.
To obtain the desired data, the researchers equip different animal species with miniature transmitters, referred to as tags. "The tags record the animal's position and movements, as well as environmental data such as temperature and air pressure," explains Johannes Weppler, ICARUS Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration. "The data is stored locally before being sent to space." An integrated computer program in the transmitter compares the orbit of the ISS with its own position data. The transmitter and receiver module of the tag are activated as soon as the Space Station is within radio range. It then makes contact with the ICARUS antenna on the exterior of the ISS.
The on-board computer processes the data and sends them to the Russian ISS Mission Control Center in Moscow. From there, the data is distributed to the German and Russian scientists. After an initial evaluation, the information is stored in an online database known as the Movebank. This data can then be accessed by scientists all over the world to use it for their investigations. They are coordinated by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany and the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The test phase will last several months
Initially, as part of the test operations, the ICARUS system will communicate only with a ground station operated by the company SpaceTech GmbH in Immenstaad on Lake Constance. This station simulates the signals sent by the animal transmitters. Gradually, mobile tags will be added, and later also transmitters on animals. Engineers from Germany and from the Russian partner RKK Energia are measuring the background noise in the frequency range used by ICARUS. This will enable them to identify possible sources of interference.
The test operation also seeks to measure the signal strength and transmission time of the ICARUS antenna when it sends commands to the tags to reprogram them. After two to three months, the test operation will be extended to Russia. In doing so, the entire system will be fine-tuned to ensure the highest possible performance and reliability. The first scientific data are expected towards the end of the four-month test phase.
Second chance thanks to cosmonauts on board the ISS
The commissioning of ICARUS was originally planned for summer 2019. However, a technical malfunction in the ICARUS on-board computer prevented this. The defective computer was removed by the cosmonauts on board the ISS. It was then returned to Earth on an uncrewed Soyuz flight in September 2019.
The German and Russian experts then analysed the source of the error and prepared a replacement computer. Finally, in December 2019, the new computer took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on board the Russian cargo spacecraft Progress MS-13 and reached the ISS shortly afterwards. There, it was installed by the cosmonauts and switched on for the first time shortly before Christmas. Since everything proceeded nominally, commissioning is now being resumed.