We will soon watch the world’s wildlife as data sent to space
The best view of animal activity on Earth will soon be from space, on the International Space Station. Despite an average altitude of 249 miles above the ground, scientists involved in the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) initiative will be able to track the movement, ambient temperatures, air pressure and more from orbit. This should allow unprecedented data on exactly how, when and where animals migrate around the planet. This information can then be used to hopefully shape how humans interact with animal populations, as well as learn about trends and events that have otherwise invisible to us.
Tiny transmitting tech
The ICARUS system is broken into two classes of components— the trackers and the receivers. The tracking devices weigh a mere five grams (with plans to reduce that to 1 gram in the future,) and can be unobtrusively attached to a huge range of creatures across the planet. Each tag is solar powered with sensors for movement, temperature, pressure, light intensity and more. To stave off obsolescence, ICARUS devices will have rewriteable memory, allowing for software updates beamed right from the ISS. Aside from sending data out, the ISS will be carrying the primary antenna to capture data from trackers below. The station’s 92-minute orbit will allow it to cover a lot of territory, checking in from creatures in every hemisphere.
Deluge of data
As ICARUS has gained momentum over the past 15 years, many scientists have been chiming in with proposals for the system. Understanding when and where animals travel can inform conservationists who want to know when sensitive species move to areas where they’ll be in danger, such as outside official preserves. Infrastructure design could benefit from avoidance of migration routes for birds and bats. More selfishly, this will also help us understand how animals help spread disease, such as bird flu, across continents. It may even help as an early warning system for natural disasters if it can be proven that wildlife reacts before humans are aware of oncoming earthquakes or tornadoes.
The ISS isn’t the only possible collection point the ICARUS team has in mind. Other satellite makers are being approached to see if more antennae can be sent to space to allow for faster, more complete data collection on wildlife movement. All the data will then be stored in a free database called MoveBank, ensuring that this worldwide monitoring is open to as many applications as possible. So while you share your location with advertisers through your phone, your local sparrows or squirrels will be sharing their activity with scientists.
Source: The Space Station Is Becoming A Spy Satellite For Wildlife by Ed Yong, The Atlantic