The International Space Station is about to join the effort to control the world’s wildlife. They will revolutionize the science of animal monitoring through Project Icarus – floating about 240 miles above the earth.
A large antenna and other devices are being tested onboard the orbital station, installed by Russian spacewalking astronauts in 2018, which will become fully operational this summer. The device can relay a much broader data range than previous tracking systems, recording the location of an animal and its physiology and environment.
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International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) would allow animals to be monitored in far larger areas than others. At the same time, ICARUS has shrunk the size of the transmitters the animals carry, making them much cheaper for booting.
These changes will allow researchers to track insects and bird flocks as they migrate over long distances instead of monitoring just one or two birds at a time. With climate change and habitat destruction roiling the planet, ICARUS will enable biologists and wildlife managers to respond quickly to changes in where and when species migrate.
“It’s a new era of discovery,” said Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, whose center is working with the project. He told The New York Times they will discover new migration paths, habitat requirements, things about species behavior that we didn’t even think about.
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People worldwide will be able to log on to the “Internet of Animals” with a smartphone app to track their favorite wildlife animal as they migrate real-time.
This space-based approach in unfolding the untold animal stories is led by Martin Wikelski, director of migration research at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany. He has been pursuing it for years with a passion for overcoming gaps and disadvantages in current technologies. DLR, the German Space Agency, primarily fund it.
The program will be available to researchers around the world using it for research purposes. And the data should be open to all, with some exceptions. Dr. Wikelski said that ICARUS readings could be combined with other types of information, such as the eBird database, to make the data even more robust.
Dr. Wikelski said one of the project’s aims is to help conservation managers adapt to a changing environment. Fixed boundaries define protected areas such as wildlife parks and forest preserves. But as several animals are on the move, other changes are causing climate shifts. Wikelski said protecting them would require a sense of where they are going and where new protected areas and corridors might need to be created.
Another of ICARUS’s ambitions is to allow anyone with a smartphone to track tagged migratory animals. One app, called the Animal Tracker, already exists as a way to tap into wildlife tracking systems based on the ground.
Dr. Wikelski aims to create support for conservation by linking people to a single charismatic animal, whose actions they can observe. “If people hear Cecil the lion died, it’s [genuine]to them,” he said, referring to a lion in Zimbabwe that was killed by an American hunter in 2015. “But if you say 3,000 lions died, nobody cares.”