Receivers in space
Satellites are expensive. For a project that still needs to be tested in practice, the Icarus researchers are therefore initially reverting to a more cost-effective alternative. The International Space Station (ISS) acts as a receiver station until Icarus has its own satellites. The ISS circumnavigates the Earth at an altitude of around 400 kilometres and thus flies at a comparatively low orbital altitude. This makes it suitable for the minimum transmission power of the Icarus transmitters. The researchers can thereby keep the energy consumption of the transmitters at a low level.
In August 2018, Russian cosmonauts installed the Icarus Onboard Computer on the ISS and attached the antenna block to the outer skin of the Russian ISS module in a field mission that lasted several hours. The Icarus transmitter on the ground will receive both configuration commands and the precise path data to calculate the next contact window via the transmitting antenna. The data transmitted to the receivers on the ISS is then transferred via the space station's communication system to the Russian control centre in Moscow and from there it is redistributed to the Icarus user data centre and the scientists.
(Due to the war in Ukraine the Russian space agency Roskosmos has terminated its cooperation with many partners. This also affects the Icarus project on the International Space Station ISS. The transmission of data from the ISS was stopped on March 3, 2022. The research team is currently considering alternative options for continuing Icarus independent of the ISS. One option is to operate its own small satellite to receive the data from the animals it transmits. In the meantime, the team is investigating whether the data can be read out from individual animals that have been transmitted on Earth.)
Icarus's electronic data processing module was installed in the space station's pressurised cabin. It is responsible for decoding the weak signals received simultaneously from the mini-transmitters via the receiver antennae and for separating the various data streams from one another.
The ISS orbits the Earth 16 times a day; in doing so, its path shifts by 2,500 kilometres to the west each time. The receiver antennae receive signals from an area measuring 30 by 800 kilometres. As a result, they cover about 80 percent of the Earth's surface between the 55th parallel north and 55th parallel south.
At higher latitudes, in favourable conditions, one transmitter can be read out up to four times a day, but as a rule it is done just once a day. Closer to the Equator, for example in Africa and in Central and South America, gaps emerge that can only be bridged after two to three days. In the future additional satellites will enable the readout of the transmitters. Furthermore, when working with the ISS, Icarus will not initially be able to cover the biologically important areas in Canada or Siberia. With satellites, the regions of scientific interest above the 55th parallel in Europe, Asia and North America will become accessible.