16 June 2014

Danish satellite will monitor migrating birds

Migrating birds

On June 19th at 9:11:11 PM, a Russian rocket carrying a Danish-built satellite will be launched. It will orbit the Earth with the sole purpose of registering radio signals from small migratory birds and other species moving over large distances. The project is a unique, interdisciplinary collaboration between DTU Space and the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen.

Photo: Flemming Hansen

Despite recent advances in bird-tracking, the detailed routes of migratory birds are still unknown for the vast majority of species and the birds’ ability to navigate remains an unsolved mystery. Now, a specially designed microsatellite will be launched into space to monitor the birds’ secretive journeys. A brand new type of transmitter weighing just 4.6 grams will be placed as a small backpack on the birds (primarily cuckoos) to send information to the satellite about their location.

"The new satellite which is developed by DTU Space will provide information with unprecedented precision on migrating birds and be able to reveal how they respond to obstacles in the landscape such as mountain ranges and oceans. The lightweight transmitter can be used on small birds like the cuckoo, which is an ideal species to study, because it is raised by other birds and does not learn migratory routes from its parents. The new detailed tracking device will provide a much deeper understanding of bird migration", says Kasper Thorup from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate.

Civil engineer René Fléron has led the satellite development at DTU Space with more than 90 students taking part in constructing the satellite and transmitter:

Photo: René Fléron

"There is an international demand for this type of technology and the new satellite has great potential as a small and highly advanced prototype. We are proud to be part of the development which is a result of being at the forefront of space technology, electronics, microtechnology and software."

4.6 grams is only the beginning

"Using specially designed space equipment to monitor migratory species is a breakthrough in biological research. So far, we have been limited to conventional equipment and transmitters that are only practical for 40% of all bird species as they are too heavy for the smaller birds. During this project we aim to develop transmitters that weigh just 2 grams, which would allow us to monitor some of the farthest migrating song birds and other smaller organisms", Kasper Thorup says.

The European Space Agency is one of the players interested in this new technology. They plan to install an antenna on the International Space Station within the next few years, in order to track small birds over large spatial scales.

Listen in when the satellite passes Denmark

René Fléron will be ready to listen for the satellite on the roof of DTU Space, when it passes Denmark for the first time on June 19th at 10:45PM and again at 00:20AM. During June 19th and 20th, there are several opportunities to visit DTU Space, learn more about the project and listen for the satellite. See invitation to events (in danish)

Kasper Thorup will be following the launch directly from Yasny, Russia and will be reporting back to the team in Denmark.


Kasper Thorup, mail: kthorup@snm.ku.dk, mobile: +45 24 94 25 74

Rene Fléron, mail: rwf@space.dtu.dk, mobile: +45 60 75 88 13