Minimize ISS Utilization: ICARUS

ISS Utilization: ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space)

Space Segment    Launch   Mission Status   Ground Segment   References

ICARUS is a collaborative ISS payload of DLR (German Aerospace Center) and Roscosmos (Russian Space Agency), planned to be installed on the Russian Segment, namely the MLM (Multipurpose Laboratory Module) of the ISS. The ICARUS Initiative is a global collaboration of scientists, which was founded in 2002 with the aim of establishing a global observation system for (small) animals as the basis for a scientific revolution in biology and zoology, respectively. ICARUS extends the satellite-based earth observation to the fauna on Earth. 1) 2)

ICARUS aims its services primarily at scientific groups that perform basic and application-oriented research with migrating animals. Aside users in national and international authorities and organization expressed already strong interest in using ICARUS, e.g. in the field of environmental protection, disease control and spread of diseases. In addition commercial applications are conceivable such as the SOS button in a mobile phone or applications for insurances.

Within the German National Space program of the ISS (International Space Station) and manned space flight, DLR is funding the development of satellite-based digital telemetry for animal observation, the ICARUS Space Project. The MPIO (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology) in Radolfzell/Konstanz has been granted financial funding for the coming years for the development of related technology. The MPIO decided to choose SpaceTech GmbH, Immendstaad, Bodensee (Lake Constance), as the main contractor and technical project manager, because this SME (Small and Medium sized manufacturing Enterprise) has a high level of competence in the field of space technology. 3)

The ICARUS project commenced in March 2012 with a feasibility study and has been in the implementation phase since January 2013. The prerequisite for successful continuation of the project was the ratification of the bilateral agreements between the Russian Space Agency, ROSCOSMOS, and the German Space Agency, DLR. This agreement ensures that the financial assistance from Russia matches the German funds for ICARUS. The Max Planck Society decided to fund, parallel to the grants from the DLR, the miniaturization of the ICARUS tag.

ICARUS is a global experimental animal observation system. This project was evaluated in 2009 by the European Science Foundation in the ELIPS program of European Space Agency as scientifically excellent and in March 2012 it was supported by the DLR Space Management as a national program. The support through public funding is a significant step to an independent ICARUS Satellite constellation in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) which enables us to create a global comprehensive and long-term observation of animals of all sizes from outer space.

ICARUS is a research endeavor that transcends disciplines and continents, it will close this knowledge gap by monitoring the local, regional and global movement patterns of tagged animals. Revolutionary scientific knowledge about life, behavior, vital functions and death of the animals on our planet is expected through the data generated by ICARUS. The globally collected data allow among other things conclusions on the spread of disease (zoonosis), findings on climate change and disaster forecast. The scientific knowledge acquired will undoubtedly be of invaluable importance for mankind and finally for our life on Earth.

The ”ICARUS consortium” consists of the institutions: MPIO (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology), the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Science, the Space Administration of the DLR, the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos and S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation "Energia", Russia. - The industrial team contracted by MPIO for the development of the space hardware and the tags consists of SpaceTech GmbH and Inradios GmbH, with further main subcontractors vH&S (von Hoerner & Sulger GmbH), STT-SystemTechnik GmbH, the Chair for RF Engineering of the Technical University of Dresden, the Institute of Communications and Navigation of the DLR, and the Sevskiy GmbH.

Some background and motivation:

Constantly billions of animals move around our planet Earth. They connect the most remote and inaccessible regions on the globe – on land, in the air and in the oceans. They could be our eyes, ears and noses for the planetary welfare. A ‘quorum sensing’ will evolve from the future interconnectedness of global animal data, a collective awareness of life on Earth and of the Earth itself.

Approximately 70% of the global epidemics, be it SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), West Nile virus, or bird flu, originate as zoonosis, provoked by the interaction between wildlife, productive livestock and humans. Global data on animal movements are indispensable in our modern, international networked world to understand how to simultaneously protect human health and wildlife. To contribute actively to solve such problems, but also to understand basic biological principles, zoologists urgently need answers to fundamental questions such as: Where is an animal at any given point of his life? What is the internal state of the animal, i.e. what amount of energy does the individual animal dissipate for which activity, and which physiological performance does it achieve? What behavioral activity performs the animal just now or what are the reasons for an individual animal to die?

None of those fundamental questions have been sufficiently answered for animals living in the wild over medium or long-term periods, especially for those small animals that are of paramount importance for mankind, e.g. as disseminator of diseases - with bats at the top of the list (Figure 1).


Figure 1: A straw-colored fruit bat is released in the Kasanka National Park (Sambia) with a GPS / GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) tag of the University of Konstanz (image credit: MPIO)

In a time of great global changes for humanity it is of critical interest to establish and use sensitive biological indicators of climate and environmental changes. Wild animals that inhabit the most diverse climates in the world and migrate between these zones are ideally suited as indicators.

The MPIO in Radolfzell/Konstanz (Germany) has been working in recent years intensively together with national and international organizations for the global and near realtime observation of animals, in particular of small ones. For the global observation only spaceborne systems in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) can be used. The mobile network is not working in many parts of the world (open land, mountains, forests, deserts, seas), direct communication systems based on UHF/VHF do not provide the required range, and satellite phone communication systems cannot be miniaturized sufficiently. The Argos satellite system provides excellent services in many cases, but currently no suitable global system meets the exponentially growing demands for the social-scientific tasks.

While we are able to study and predict weather, plant growth and atmospheric chemistry around the globe, scientists have an exceedingly difficult – and often impossible – time to even observe moving animals. And these migrating animals provide some of the most important ecosystem services for people: salmons and sardines serve as food, fruit bats pollinate mangos and disperse tree seeds every night across fragmented African landscapes, and songbirds control plant pests that otherwise threaten crops. At the same time, animals may massively harm us: billions of desert locusts and African quelea birds destroy crops, bats and birds spread harmful viruses, and wild relatives of domesticated mammals harbor viruses that threaten human livelihood such as the hoof-and-mouth disease. On the other hand, some whale species disappear for much of the year into unknown corners of the ocean. Billions of songbirds vanish every year without a trace leaving us clueless of where and how they die. Unexpectedly, invasive species magically appear in new habitats, causing massive harm and long-term damage.

The conventional technologies for global tracing and tracking of animals via satellite exclude still about 75% of birds and mammals, because most of the animals are small. Many ecologically and economically important species are even very small, e.g. bats, songbirds and migratory locusts. In Figure 2, the body mass over the number of the species is shown, as well as the limits of available tracking technologies for these animals. A general rule is that devices attached to animals shall not have more mass than about 3% of the body mass of the animal, so as not to affect the natural behavior of the animals by the additional weight (Ref. 1). 4)

So far all space fairing nations with their programs on Global Change, Changing Earth, Living Earth, Copernicus, etc., have only been successful in examining and explaining many physical, chemical or botanical phenomena of the Earth’s environment and rightly extend and intensify these programs. However, the space based monitoring of small animals has not been included in national and international space programs.


Figure 2: The frequency distribution of bird body masses in relation to possible tracking technologies; the minimum bird sizes for each technology are represented according to the 5% body-mass rule (image credit: ICARUS consortium, Ref. 4)

We are now finally in a technological position to start closing this gap by ICARUS. The development of ‘Movebank5) 6), a global, freely available database for animal movements, which constitutes the data backbone for ICARUS, allows a global collection and analysis of movement data from animals. — Movebank is ideally supported by the UN-FAO (United Nations -Food and Agriculture Organization). A Memorandum of Understanding for sharing of global animal movement patterns for disease defense and environmental protection has been agreed. The Bonn Convention on Migratory Species (Convention on the Conservatory of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, CMS, of UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program), expressed strong interest in ICARUS.

The major challenge for the ICARUS Space Segment is the ability to listen to tiny transmitters on thousands of animals.

Due to its accessibility and possibility for constant human updates and interventions, the ISS (International Space Station) is an ideal development platform to rapidly prototype and advance the engineering of a new global transceiver system. On the ground, ICARUS will stimulate the advancement of miniaturized sensing and bio-logging technology, ultimately also enabling biomedical research to ‘go wild’ in their approach to test lab animals in a natural setting.

The ICARUS System:

To achieve the ICARUS goals, the following prerequisites have to be fulfilled: Global tag coverage to record long distance migration patterns; Simultaneous communication with a multitude of animal tags; Extremely low tag mass and size to allow tracking of small animals; Long, maintenance-free tag life in order to cover complete migration cycles; and logging of the internal (physiological) and the external (environmental) state of animals.

The overall ICARUS system is shown in Figure 3. ICARUS consists of spaceborne and ground-deployed elements. The spaceborne elements are used as a relay for the RF communication link between animal tags and the operation center and as the coordinator for the communication with the tags.

For the miniaturized tags attached to the animals, a two-way communication via RF link to the ICARUS payload in orbit is provided. The tag is to determin its position in regular intervals using GPS signals, to acquire data from internal accelerometer and magnetometer measurements, to provide the capability of logging the track and to determin the movements of the tagged animal with high accuracy. During contact with the ISS, the tag transmits the recorded data and can receive reconfiguration commands.


Figure 3: Schematic view of the overall ICARUS system (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

The ICARUS Operations Center is monitoring and controlling the spaceborne elements at the ISS and the tags via the ISS. In addition, it is responsible for processing the science data and for disseminating them to the science community via the Movebank database. As amendment to the space link, the user can communicate with the tags at short range using hand-held units and mobile base stations. This provides the capability of reading out the data stored in the mass memory that could not be sent via the data rate limited ground to the space RF link.

Once validated, the developed low power communication system with a spaceborne transponder and multiple miniaturized transceivers on Earth paves the way for a multitude of other applications to the benefit of humankind, especially on a long time perspective, with an extension of the in-orbit infrastructure by dedicated satellites or hosted ICARUS payloads on other satellites that will lead to a shortening of the revisit periods, and an increase in the data upload capability and the number of tags being serviced at the same time, respectively.

The ICARUS demonstration mission

In 2009, the MPIO submitted a scientific proposal for a satellite based animal monitoring system to ESA (ESA Call ILSRA 2009/4), which was evaluated in 2010 with "excellent" in terms of its scientific content. In the proposal, the ISS has been proposed as the best opportunity for a fast implementation of a demonstration experiment. As a long-term goal, a constellation of satellites for the global animal monitoring system has been identified.

In March 2012, the MPIO kicked-off a phase A feasibility study for the ICARUS space segment with financial support of the DLR Space Administration. In this study, a concept for the ICARUS system was worked out, the digital and analog telemetry link was analyzed and simulated and the feasibility of the system, considering the challenging requirements, was demonstrated. The results of this feasibility study and the successful discussions with the Russian scientific, industrial and in particular governmental cooperation partner Roscosmos paved the way for the continuation of the ICARUS space program. The hardware and software that will be accommodated at the ISS will be developed, manufactured and tested within this program, launched to the ISS, accommodated and put into operation. Finally the functions and performance of the ICARUS equipment in orbit will be demonstrated as a necessary basis for a subsequent experimental operational phase.

In this first test phase of the ICARUS demonstration mission, the ISS serves as the relay station in space to test the function of the new developed spaceborne elements (antennas, hardware and software of the receiver and transmitter). The demonstration mission is based on a German-Russian cooperation agreement between the DLR Space Administration and the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. DLR is responsible for the equipment to be installed on the ISS; Roscosmos is responsible for transport, accommodation and operation of the ICARUS equipment. Funded by the DLR Space Administration, the development of the payload for the ISS was kicked off in September 2013.

The launch and commissioning are planned for the second half of 2016. The operation of ICARUS on the International Space Station will be provided until the end of the operation of the ISS (i.e. 2024-2028).

ICARUS communication: A typical tag data and tag command round-trip scheme is outlined in Figure 4. As soon as a tag is within the reception range of the ICARUS transmitter on the ISS, it starts a communication sequence with listening to the downlink data stream and sending its own position and sensor data gathered since the last contact. The ICARUS on-board system at the Russian Segment of the ISS (RS ISS) stores this data and transmits them during the next contact to the ISS Control Center (ISS CC) via the established ground station network. The raw data are forwarded to the IOC (ICARUS Operation Center), processed and stored in the scientific Movebank database. The scientists evaluate the data and may request a commanding of the tag in case an adjustment of configuration settings of the tag is needed. The command is transmitted to the ICARUS on board equipment at the ISS. Next time in the sequence, the tag transmits the new data and thereby becomes noticeable, the stored command for this tag is downlinked to the dedicated tag.

The sequencing of the communication between the ISS on-board equipment and the animal tag (and vice versa), as schematically outlined in Figure 5, is under the autonomous control of the on-board equipment and the tags. Only the configuration and command transfers are triggered on a regular basis from the ICARUS Operation Center.


Figure 4: ICARUS operational communication scheme (image credit: ICARUS consortium)


Figure 5: Tag to ISS and ISS to tag communication (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

The communication sequence between tag and the ICARUS on-board equipment consists of the following steps as indicated as number in the images of Figure 5.

1) Step 1: The tag is in the hibernation mode, i.e. in the mode with the lowest power consumption, waiting for the internal timer to awake the system to life at the time of the expected ISS appearance.

2) Step 2: After being woken up, the receiver starts listening intermittently in order to detect the presence of the ISS downlink RF signal.

3) Step 3: This intermittent operation will be continued until the detection is successful. With the successful reception of the ISS downlink signal, the tag will extract from the received signal the most recent information about the ISS ephemerides.

4) Step 4: After successful ISS presence detection, the tag will determine its relative position to the ISS (GPS based). Based on this calculations the tag will determine the appearance of the receive window.

5) Step 5: Upon reaching the predicted receive window the tag will transmit the tag data.

6) Step 6: After the conclusion of the data transmission, the tag will remain for a predefined time in the receive mode in case the on-board equipment has a command or reconfiguration instruction to be transmitted.

7) Step 7: The tag calculates the time of the next scheduled ISS contact and falls into hibernation mode.

Using the ISS as platform for the ICARUS payload provides fast and cost effective accessibility for the demonstration of the technology. For the demonstration mission the up- and downlink pattern as shown in Figure 6 have been defined. In flight direction the ICARUS downlink broadcasts information about the present orbit of the ISS that is used by the tag for the calculation of the exact time of the pass of the uplink window.

The uplink window is split in three parts to separate physically the tags, enable a receive antennas design with higher gain and to reduce the crosstalk between otherwise neighboring areas, i.e. to reduce the noise seen on-board at the ICARUS receiver that is generated in case of parallel transmission of a multitude of tags. The size of the target pattern corresponds to the time needed for transmission of an uplink packet. The downlink stripes after the uplink are dedicated to the configuration command reception. The tags will keep listening for a few seconds after sending the science data in case that some configuration commands for the tag are stored on-board the ISS. The red area represents the area where the communication is not possible for both uplink and downlink due to the high Doppler rate. The swath width is the same for both uplink and downlink patterns (800 km arc length).

The pattern for the uplink and downlink described above provides with its swath width of 800 km for the ISS orbit (51.6° inclination and 410 km altitude) in 48 hours a coverage as shown in Figure 7. The maximum latitude tags can be read out is approximately 55°. In latitudes between 40° and 55° up to 8 contacts within 48 hours are possible and at least 4 contacts in most of the region. Between ±40° and the equator still gaps with no contact occur.


Figure 6: Target ground pattern for uplink (blue) and downlink (green), image credit: ICARUS consortium


Figure 7: Number of contacts to the ISS in 48 hours (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

The contact probability described is sufficient for the demonstration of the new ICARUS technology and for the first years of scientific operation. Nevertheless it depicts the need for further ICARUS payloads on satellites with higher inclination, to enable the use of ICARUS tags in higher latitudes and get faster access to tags in low latitudes.


RF frequency

402.25 MHz (UHF)

Allocated RF channel bandwidth

1.5 MHz

Data rate

520 bit/s

Data transmitted in 1 packet

1784 bits

Signal peak power (at transmitter)

50 mW

Packet content

Identifier, housekeeping, sensor data


RF frequency

468.1 MHz (UHF)

Allocated RF channel bandwidth

50 Hz

Data rate

656 bit/s

Data transmitted in 1 packet

656 bits

Packet content

Identifier, two line, elements of the ISS, Tag commands

Table 1: Specification of the ICARUS uplink and downlink

ICARUS Space Segment

The ICARUS space segment consists of the OBE (On-Board Equipment) that is accommodated in the Russian Segment of the ISS: the OBC-I (On-Board Computer) and the antenna assembly as contribution from the German side. The harness and the mounting structures needed for the accommodation of the ICARUS equipment are provided by the Russian side.

OBC-I: The OBC-I is installed inside the Service Module behind a ceiling panel (Figure 9). The OBC-I consists of an air cooled rack housing the data handling processor board, the transmitter and receiver baseband board, and the receiver frontend board. The baseband and frontend boards are dedicated developments for ICARUS.


Figure 8: Qualification model of the ICARUS OBC-I rack (with thermal model of the electronic boards), image credit: ICARUS consortium

The data handling processor board provides the data interfaces to the Service Module’s on-board computer for the exchange of command, auxiliary, housekeeping and science data, acquires housekeeping data from all OBE and the science data from the transmitter and receiver baseband board, stores the configuration commands to tags and generates the downlink data stream.

The main function of the transmitter and receiver baseband board is the digital processing of the baseband data for the receiving and transmitting part. Furthermore the baseband board also provides auxiliary data acquisition for health monitoring and housekeeping purposes. The main components of the TRX-BB are two identical Xilinx Virtex-5 FPGAs performing the digitizing, preprocessing, and demodulation (receive), formatting, coding (transmit) and decoding (receive) of data.

The main functions of the receiver frontend are the down-conversion, amplification and filtering of the three received analog RF signals, to generate and supply the clock signal internally and to the transmitter and receiver baseband board and to provide via coaxial cables the power supply of the LNAs that are part of the external accommodated receive antennas of the antenna assembly.

Due to the internal accommodation the radiation tolerance requirements for the electronic components are relaxed and partially commercial available units have been selected.


Figure 9: ICARUS OBC-I accommodation site inside the Service Module of the Russian Segment of the ISS (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

Antenna assembly:

All ICARUS antenna elements (receive and transmit) are interconnected in one monoblock forming the ICARUS antenna assembly. It consist of two receive antennas, a transmit antenna and a central plate. The antennas are interconnected via the central plate with EVA-compatible hinges to allow the unfolding of the ICARUS antenna assembly from the transport configuration by cosmonauts outside the ISS.

The transmit antenna main elements are the radiating antenna element, the electronic unit of the TXFE (Transmitter Frontend) and a TBF (Transmitter Bandpass Filter) as shown in Figure 10.

A quadrifilar helix serves as the radiating element of the antenna. The four helixes are connected on the bottom side to the phase shift network placed in the reflector plate. This phase shift network provides the required phasing for the circular polarization of the main beam. Over the intended beam width, the antenna radiates with a constant flux density on the surface of the earth. A radome encloses the antenna radiating elements providing the necessary structural stiffness to the helix and protecting the antenna against the thermal environment and accidental contacts during accommodation. The transmitter frontend receives the pure baseband data from the OBC-I, performs pulse shaping , modulation of the carrier with the received digital data stream, amplification of the modulated signal, and filtering of the output spectrum to suppress harmonics. The amplified signal is sent to the transmit bandpass filter. A third-order inter-digital filter design is chosen for the transmit bandpass filter. The filtered signal is forwarded to the phase shift network and transmitted by the antenna elements to the tags on ground. The transmit antenna is connected by a hinge to the central plate of the antenna assembly. The transmit antenna is oriented to Nadir after final accommodation.

The receive part of the ICARUS antenna assembly consists of two electrically identical side receive antenna assemblies that are mounted on the central plate by hinges. The mounting angle between the two side receive antenna assemblies is ±35° (deployed position) relative to the central plate. Each of the side receive antenna assemblies consists of two panels, each is equipped with 2 identical SAPs (Shorted Annular Patches), Figure 11. The two panels are connected by a hinge and form a 4 x 1 patch antenna array. Furthermore, SDNs (Side antenna Distribution Networks), LNAs (Low Noise Amplifiers) and ILAs (In-Line Amplifiers) as shown in Figure 12 are part of the side receive antenna assembly.


Figure 10: Transmit antenna concept and constituents (image credit: ICARUS consortium)


Figure 11: Receive antenna single panel (front and side view) with two patch antenna elements (image credit: ICARUS consortium)


Figure 12: Side receive antenna assembly with 4 patch elements consisting of two single panels and distribution of equipment inside the two panels (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

The side receive antenna assembly receives RF signals from the tags on ground, pre-amplifies them and forwards them to the OBC-I. Each of the side receive antenna assemblies are used to establish left and right receive pattern. For the central receive pattern the signals from both side receive antenna assemblies are combined and amplified via a center antenna distribution network and in-line amplifier, which are mounted on the central plate.

The whole receive part of the antenna assembly is mechanically pitched from nadir in anti-flight direction of the ISS by 18°. In addition each side receive antenna assembly is electrically tilted in flight direction, the central beam in anti-flight direction to cover the three uplink ground pattern.

The transport configuration of the antenna assembly is shown in Figure 13. This configuration allows the transport of the complete antenna assembly in the Progress cargo spacecraft, the outer dimensions are given by the Progress stowage volume and the hatches of the ISS. After delivery of the antenna assembly to the ISS it will be prepared for the outside installation.


Figure 13: ICARUS antenna assembly in transport configuration (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

During the preparation of the antenna assembly for the EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity), transport stiffening elements are removed, and handrails and the mast are mounted to the antenna assembly. After preparation for EVA, the antenna assembly is accommodated and unfolded in an EVA (Extravehicular Activity) via the antenna mast on the universal working place (URMD) at the port side of the Service Module (Figures 14 and 15), and connected by the harness to the OBC-I.


Figure 14: ICARUS antenna assembly unfolding sequence and in deployed configuration (image credit: ICARUS consortium)


Figure 15: The ICARUS antenna accommodation site is on the Service Module of the ISS Russian Segment (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

The total mass of the ICARUS payload is 120 kg (not including the Russian part of the accommodation equipment, e.g. the harness and the mounting structure), the maximum average power consumption is ~140 W. 7)

Launch: The ICARUS payload (antenna assembly) was launched on 13 February 2018 (08:13 UTC, 14:13 local time in Baikonur) on a Roscosmos Soyuz-2.1a launch vehicle in the Progress MS-08/69P cargo spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. The launch of the ISS logistics flight is under the responsibility of RSC Energia. 8) 9)

"The Russian Progress MS-08 cargo spacecraft carries approximately 2500 kg of supplies, of which about 200 kg are allotted to ICARUS – the most technically advanced project for animal observation from space," explains Johannes Weppler, ICARUS Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration in Bonn. "We are very happy that ICARUS will soon enter its operational phase after several years of intensive preparation and that the hardware required for this – the antenna and on board computer will soon both be at the Zvezda module in the Russian sector of the space station." The ICARUS computer was already transported to the ISS by a Soyuz launcher on 14 October 2017.

Orbit: Near-circular orbit of the ISS, altitude of ~400 km, inclination =51.6°.

Progress is scheduled to reach the ISS on 15 February 2018 at 11:45 CET (Central European Time). The ICARUS computer on the ISS is due to begin operations in April. If this works as expected, an EVA (ExtraVehicular Activity) to install the antenna on the Zvezda module is planned for the cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Prokopyev. Prokopyev is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station with the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst in June. The antenna block consists of three receiving antennas up to 2 m long and one transmitting antenna. The receiving antennas can receive data from more than 15 million transmitters worldwide, anywhere on Earth.

On Earth, tags attached to the animals collect information on their behavior. To do this, they store GPS coordinates, acceleration and environmental data. To save energy and thereby prolong their operating lifetime, the transmitting and receiving modules of the tags are put into sleep mode for most of the time. The data acquired during the current ISS orbit is stored in the small devices, and they only ‘wake up’ when the space station flies over them. Then, they send their data to the antenna in orbit. The information is decoded by the ICARUS computer and transferred to the ISS ground station in Moscow. From there, it is fed into the scientific database, which was developed by the Max Planck Institute and the University of Konstanz. The overall system, mainly developed by small and medium-sized German companies, is designed to be more accurate and reliable than any previous systems and, additionally, supply greatly improved data about the animals. German and Russian scientists expect that they will not only obtain new evidence about animal lifestyles from the data, but also insights into the spread of epidemics (for example, bird flu and Ebola), the impact of climate change and the interaction between animal migrations and food security in critical regions.

The head of the project is Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. Together with his team, he has been working towards launching ICARUS for many years: "This is a milestone and a unique experience for me. Starting from June 2018, we will first fit our miniature transmitters to approximately 300 blackbirds in 35 places in Germany. In doing so, we want to find out where they live, where they fly to, where they die and how we can protect them."

Mission status

March 10, 2020: The German-Russian observation system for animal migration Icarus, went into operation today. With the cooperation project of the Max Planck Society, the Russian space agency Roskosmos and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), scientists hope to investigate the migratory routes of various animal species. After the system is switched on, there will be a test phase lasting several months. During this time, the transmitters as well as the system components on the ground and on board the ISS will be tested. After all tests are completed, Icarus is expected to be available to users in autumn 2020. 10) 11)


Figure 16: The transmitters specially developed for Icarus weigh only five grams. They measure the position and various body data of the animal and transmit the measured data by radio (image credit: MPI of Animal Behavior, J. Stierle)

- With Icarus, the scientists hope to observe the migratory movements of birds and follow the migration routes of mammals and insects. The information should primarily be used for behavioral research and animal welfare. It should also provide data on the possible spread of plant seeds and pathogens. Martin Wikelski from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell is the scientific Director of the experiment.

- In order to obtain the desired data, the researchers plan to equip different animal species with miniature transmitters (tags). “The tags record the position and movements of the animal together with environmental data such as temperature and air pressure”, explains Johannes Weppler, Icarus project manager at DLR Space Management. “The data will then be stored locally before being sent into space”. An integrated computer program in the transmitter will compare the orbit of the ISS with its own positional data. As soon as the space station is within radio range, the transmitter and receiver module of the tag will be activated. It will then make contact with the Icarus antenna on the outside of the ISS.

- The on-board computer will then process the data and forward them to the Russian ISS control center in Moscow. From there, the data will be forwarded to the German and Russian scientists. After an initial evaluation, the information will be stored in an online data base, the Movebank. Scientists around the world will then be able to access this data and create their own analyses. They are coordinated by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany and the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Figure 17: With Icarus, researchers can follow the movements of many thousands of animals worldwide - around the clock (image credit: MaxCine)

- During test operations, the Icarus system will initially communicate only with a ground station of SpaceTech GmbH in Immenstaad am Bodensee (lake Constance). The station will simulate the signals from animal transmitters. Mobile tags will be gradually added – later also on animals. Engineers from Germany and the Russian partner RKK Energia will measure the background noise in the frequency range of Icarus. This will enable them to identify possible sources of interference.

- A second aspect of the test operation will be 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 the territory of the Russian Federation. The overall system will thus be fine-tuned to ensure maximum performance and reliability. The initial scientific data is expected towards the end of the four-month test phase.

Second chance

- The commissioning of Icarus had originally been planned for summer 2019. However, a technical defect in the on-board computer of the Icarus system upset the plans. Thanks to the astronauts on board the ISS, the defective computer was removed. In September 2019, it returned to Earth with an unmanned Soyuz flight.

- The German and Russian experts then analyzed the source of the error and simultaneously prepared a replacement computer for the launch to the ISS. Finally, in December 2019, the new computer took off from Baikonur on the Russian freighter Progress MS-13 and reached the ISS shortly afterwards. It was then installed by the astronauts and switched on for the first time shortly before Christmas. Because this went as planned, the commissioning will now be resumed.

• On 10 July 2019, the ICARUS antenna and the on-board computer were activated at the Russian ground control center. Over a period of three to four months, the ICARUS scientists will first test the transmission of the data from the transmitters via the ISS to the ground station. By measuring the background noise in the ICARUS frequency range, the researchers want to find out where the transmission of other signals could be disturbed. The engineers will then switch on the ICARUS transmitter on the ISS, which will later be used to program the animal transmitters. The test ground station will then record the transmission times and signal strength. Next, SpaceTech's engineers and their Russian colleagues from RSC Energia will determine the regions of the Earth that will be covered by the ISS as the antenna passes over. The transmitters can only transmit their data into space if they are within the signal cone of the antenna. 12) 13) 14)

- To observe the movement of thousands of animals across the globe, large amounts of data must be sent smoothly and safely from the transmitters into space and back again. During the test phase, a simulator will generate artificial transmitter signals which will be sent to the ICARUS module on board during each ISS flyby. With the simulator, researchers can test the transmission of data from individual transmitters – or from hundreds. After all, real transmitters are to send their data from test areas in Germany and Russia into space. The security of data transmission will also be tested.

- Once the tests have been completed and the results evaluated, ICARUS will begin routine operations. By the end of 2019, scientists across the globe should be able to work with ICARUS. The associated research projects on the Russian side will be managed by the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IG-RAS).

Movebank 2.0

- The movement data received by ICARUS are first transmitted to a ground station and then relayed into the freely accessible Movebank database. The data are also made available to the public via the free "Animal Tracker" smartphone app. The ICARUS transmitters can relay more than just movement data: information on the health of the animals (e.g. heart rate measurements) and their environmental conditions (e.g. weather data) are collected as well. In the future, Movebank will face increased demands in regard to the storage and processing of this diverse data. For this reason, the MWK-funded "Movebank 2.0" project was recently initiated to further develop the database. To optimize the processing of large amounts of data, the database is being expanded to include improved metadata schemes as well as data analysis and visualization tools. "Movebank 2.0" is a joint project between the research team of Falk Schreiber, Professor of Life Science Informatics at the University of Konstanz, and the Open Science team of the Communication, Information and Media Center (KIM) at the University of Konstanz. In addition to being utilized in university teaching, "Movebank 2.0" will also provide members of the public the opportunity to contribute to the further development of its database within the context of a citizen science project (Ref. 14).

• ICARUS system commenced operations on Wednesday, 10 July 2019. A four-month test phase has now been initiated. ICARUS is expected to be ready for use by international researchers as early as the fall/winter of 2019.

• ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space): Antenna system on the International Space Station (ISS) will allow researchers to investigate the global migratory movements of animals and their interactions with our planet's ecosystems.

• A joint project of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz and the University of Konstanz in cooperation with the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

• A key project for, among others, the University of Konstanz's Cluster of Excellence "Center for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior", which is one of the two new Clusters of Excellence receiving funding within the context of the German Excellence Strategy since 2019.

• Movebank 2.0: Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts (MWK) Baden-Württemberg is funding the further development of the public database for the collection and processing of the ICARUS data.

Table 2: Facts of ICARUS


Figure 18: The ICARUS antenna system on the International Space Station (ISS) will allow researchers from around the world to investigate the movement of animals anywhere around the world. The movement data received by ICARUS are made available to the public via the Animal Tracker app, pictured here (image credit: University of Konstanz)

• On the evening of 15 August 2018, the Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Oleg Artemyev deployed the antennas of the German-Russian ICARUS project on the Zvezda module of the ISS (International Space Station) during an almost eight hour EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity). The spacewalk began at 18:17 CEST (Central European Standard Time) on 15 August, and ended at 02:03 CEST on 16 August. It took the two cosmonauts five hours to install the ICARUS antennas, which was completed at 00:18 CEST. 15)

- The cosmonauts received support from German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, who oversaw the operation from inside the station. Now that the antenna block has been installed, the ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) system, which allows the ISS to track animal migration across the world, is finally complete. ICARUS is a project of DLR (German Aerospace Center), the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. ICARUS will soon be put into operation in the coming days and weeks and is also a part of Alexander Gerst's current horizons mission.


Figure 19: Installation of the ICARUS antenna assembly by the cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Oleg Artemyev on the Zvezda module of the ISS (image credit: Roscosmos, DLR)

Scientists in Russia and Germany expect that knowledge gained through ICARUS will provide new insights into the lives and environments of animals, including the ways in which they interact with humans. "On their way south, for example, storks often rest in the vicinity of locust breeding grounds on the southern edge of the Sahara. As such, the birds show us exactly where these swarms of insects are. This can help us avoid plagues of pests and prevent famine," explains Martin Wikelski, scientific director of the ICARUS project at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell.

Wikelski's Russian colleague Grigori Tertitski, a project manager at the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is already looking forward to learning more about the routes that small birds take as they migrate from east to west. "Some of these animals are infected with bird flu in East Asia. As they migrate through the territory of the Russian Federation, they may then infect other animals. Knowing more about this would be very helpful," says the scientist.

ICARUS Ground Segment

The ICARUS Ground Segment consist of two main portions, the equipment provided to the user such as the tag, the hand-held and the base station, and the infrastructure and services needed for operating the spaceborne equipment of the ICARUS space segment, to communicate with the user and to provide the processed data received from the tag.

Tag, hand-held and base station:

The main challenge of ICARUS is the implementation of an operating low-volume data link between the tags on the animal and the receiver on the ISS. A miniaturized animal tag provides the capability of communicating up to 800 km with the ICARUS equipment at the ISS, to measure its absolute position in regular intervals using GPS and to acquire local temperatures and acceleration values that give indications of the behavior of the animal — all with a mass of the tag less than 5 gram and a volume of less than 1.5 cm3.

Depending on the animal to be tagged, the overall design of the tag will be different, in particular with respect to the mechanical fixation and user specific sensor equipment and data preprocessing. However the basic core electronic element will always be the same. For specific applications it will provide processor space for specific application software, a standard interface for additional sensor packages and a mechanical interface to the specific animal fixation system being under the responsibility of the user. The main focus on the tag design is to achieve low mass and volume values, this in consequence results in the requirement of low power consumption.

The aim of the first tag development is a basic version that is used to demonstrate the functionality and performance of the overall system during the commissioning and first operational phase of ICARUS on the ISS. The main characteristics of the tag are shown in Table 3; a representative sized model of the tag is shown in Figure 20.

Once the basic version of the tag has been tested together with the ICARUS payload on the ISS in the demonstration mission, the next step of the miniaturization of the tag will be started, e.g. by using unpackaged electronic components and bonding technologies providing less volume and mass, up to a specific development of an ICARUS radio chip (ASIC). This will in particular reduce significantly the power required for the tag transmitter and receiver.

Mass, design life, size

5 gram, 9 months, 25 x 15 x 6 mm

Location determination

Three dimensions based on GNSS

Determination interval

1 hour

Location accuracy

GPS (5 m in all dimensions)

Downlinked information (commands)

- internal power user On/Off
- data acquisition time intervals
- transmission mode selection
- erase internal memory
- tag reset

Uplinked information

- last 20 GPS positions
- dead/alive
- tag ID
- command feedback

Logged information

- Acceleration
- Magnetometer
- Temperature

Table 3: Key requirements to the ICARUS tag


Figure 20: Representative sized model of the future <5 gram ICARUS tag (image credit: ICARUS consortium)

For terrestrial communication with the tag, mobile hand-held units and base stations are required. With the hand-held units, the user can initialize the animal tag prior to attachment to the animal and load the latest data for the calculation of ISS contacts and GPS position data in the tag. After the animals are collared, data can be read from the tag memory and configuration settings are transmitted to the tag with the hand-held unit in the range of up to 3 km distance. The base stations provide data upload capability in regions in which the animals are for longer time, e.g. in breading areas.

IOC (ICARUS Operation Center):

The central entity for the organization of the entire ICARUS operations is the IOC. It consists of two main parts, the MCC (Monitoring and Control Center) and the UDC (User Data Center). The MCC organizes the overall flow of events and manages the necessary actions to be taken in the case of non-nominal conditions with the on-board equipment. All those actions are organized in close concert with the operator of the Russian ISS segment using the interface to the Russian ISS CC (ISS Control Center). The MCC will be located close to the ISS CC.

In order to perform the tasks, the MCC will evaluate the data received from the ISS CC after each contact with the ISS. It will check the health status of the on-board equipment by comparing the housekeeping data with predefined reference values. In case of inconsistencies or limit violations, respective countermeasures will be defined and uploaded to the ISS CC for a transmission during the next ISS contact.

In addition the MCC will check the user data for consistency and transmission errors. After confirmation of the formal correctness, the data will be transferred to the UDC within the IOC.

In the UDC, the entire system is managed; the incoming and outgoing data are processed and provided. It thus forms the essential link to the MCC and the space infrastructure on the one hand, and the users and the scientific community on the other hand.

In case of specific science demands, the UDC will implement specific commands or reconfiguration instructions to specific tags and implement this into the command data stream. This command data will be transferred to the MCC / ISS CC to be routed to the ICARUS on-board computer at the ISS during the next possible contact with the ISS.

The data transmitted from the tags via the ISS to the ground segment are prepared for storage in the scientific Movebank database and stored there.

Developed and operated by MPIO, the global database Movebank provides the data structure for ICARUS. Movebank is a free Internet platform for displaying, editing, analysis, storage and publication of data from migrations of animals. An example of a white stork study stored and displayed in Movebank is shown in Figure 21. 16)


Figure 21: Position data of a white stork study using Movebank for storage and data display. The migration routes West and East of the Mediterranean Sea can be distinguished (image credit: MPIO)

The strength of Movebank is in the management of very large data sets, as they arise in the telemetering of animals over a long period. In order not only to use the data obtained by tracking devices, satellite transmitters and loggers for a single analysis as part of the original projects, but to provide them long-term for further analyses, Movebank stores the data for general public access. Movebank not only provides tools for basic editing of localization data. It also can be used to connect the tag position and sensor data (acceleration sensors, body temperature, heart rate etc.) with external environmental data, e.g. with wind speed, wind direction, temperature and other weather parameters.

Furthermore, in a medium to long-term perspective, the UDC will provide sustainable new data products as an extended service. This includes the support of the users in the scientific analyses of the data by providing and/or developing of interdisciplinary methods and algorithms to meet the specific requirements of the users.

Initial scientific program:

An international scientific core group, led by MPIO, is established for the first scientific applications using the new ICARUS service on the ISS. Scientific proposals for the first few years of operation have already been submitted and selected with the participation of the ICARUS scientific executive board. The Russian scientific partner of MPIO, the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IG RAS), organized in 2014 a national scientific competition for the use of ICARUS and selected, supported by the ICARUS executive board, the best 16 proposals demonstrating the excellence of the Russian national science in the field of wildlife research.

Once the ICARUS payload on the ISS is completely tested during the commissioning phase and is subsequently put into operation, these scientists will work with the first ICARUS animal transmitters in the field and get first scientifically usable data from small migrating animals.

Animal migrations are global - as well as their scientific research. However, the global data sets are not always open and easily accessible. The global bio-logging community has set itself the objective to declare at the 6th International Bio-Logging Conference in Konstanz/Germany in September 2017, a decade for global animal migrations research. For this data, standards are already under development, databases are started to be linked with each other and international collaborations are prepared. Therefore, we can be confident that the global observation of animals will become a more and more expanding field of science which will provide great assistance to the worldwide protection and conservation of migratory animals, contribute to the global health of humans and wildlife, support the understanding of global changes observing the abilities of animals to connect habitats around the globe, and assists the research in the fields of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

1) Walter Naumann, Martin Wikelski, Mikhail Belyaev, Friedhelm Claasen, ”ICARUS – a new global observation system for small objects (animals),” Proceedings of the 66th International Astronautical Congress (IAC 2015), Jerusalem, Israel, Oct.12-16, 2015, paper: IAC-15-B2.1.9

2) ”ICARUS Initiative,” MPIO, URL:

3) ”Germany and Russia will implement a global system for animal observation on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016,” Max Planck Institute, Jan. 24, 2014, URL:

4) Eli S. Bridge, Kasper Thorup, Melissa S. Bowlin, Phillip B. Chilson, Robert H. Diehl, René W. Fléron, Phillip Hartl, Roland Kays, Jeffrey F. Kelly, W. Douglas Robinson, Martin Wikelski, ”Technology on the Move: Recent and Forthcoming Innovations for Tracking Migratory Birds,” BioScience Vol. 61, No 9, September 2011, pp: 689–698, URL:


6) ”Movebank: a global database for animal movement,” MPIO, URL:

7) Information provided by Walter Naumann of MPIO (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology).

8) ”The ICARUS antenna is on its way to the International Space Station,” DLR, 13 Feb. 2018, URL:

9) ”Ears for Icarus - Russian rocket delivers antenna for animal tracking system to the International Space Station,” Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 13 February 2018, URL:

10) ”Icarus is launched — Test phase for the animal monitoring system begins,” MPI of Animal Behavior, 10 March 2020, URL:

11) ”Observing animal migration from space – ISS experiment ICARUS begins,” DLR, 10 March 2020, URL:

12) ”Animal observation system ICARUS is switched on,” DLR, 08 July 2019, URL:

13) ”Icarus is switched on,” MPG (Max Planck Gesellschaft), 08 July 2019, URL:

14) ”ICARUS has been switched on: Testing has started,” EurekAlert, University of Konstanz News Release, 10 July 2019, URL:

15) ”Extravehicular activity for ICARUS -Antenna system for Russian-German experiment installed on the International Space Station,” DLR News, 16 August 2018, URL:

16) W. Fiedler, S. Davidson, ”Movebank – an open internet platform for animal movement data,” Vogelwarte, Vol. 50, 2012, pp: 15 – 20

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

Space Segment    Launch   Mission Status   Ground Segment   References     Back to Top