The Avian Migration Aerial Surface Space project takes advantage of thousands of photos taken by astronauts to give people an appreciation for the migrations of the many birds across the planet.
Those who see Earth from the International Space Station often say that it provides a new appreciation for our planet. The Avian Migration Aerial Surface Space project, or AMASS, takes advantage of thousands of photos taken by astronauts to give people an appreciation for the migrations of the many birds across the planet.
Also called a bird space, the project maps the routes taken by seven species of endangered or threatened birds, and highlights habitat changes along those paths that are mainly caused by human activities. More than four years later, astronauts have now photographed key sites along the migration paths of all seven species. AMASS is sponsored by the Roberta Bondar Foundation in cooperation with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The foundation is a research and educational effort initiated by Bondar, the first Canadian woman to fly in space.
“We view environmental education as a way to get people to love something,” Bondar says. “If they like something, they want to protect it.” She traveled to remote areas, taking pictures on the ground and in the air and environment of birds, but she knew that pictures from space could help people understand the bigger picture.
The images are part of the space station’s Crew Earth Observation (CEO) project, which supports a variety of research and education projects. AMASS began working with the CEO in 2016, photographing locations along the North American immigration path of a roaring crane. The collaboration expanded in 2018 and 2019 when CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques flew aboard the space station.
“It has always been my passion for looking at Earth from space,” says Saint Jacques. “Since birds are influenced by what we do on the planet, this was a great way for me to give an idea of my observations on Earth. Seeing the migrations from space, and imagining birds flying over such incredible distances, was impressive.”
Subsequent crews continued to work. Saint-Jacques says photo taking is a common activity at the station, so it took little effort to recruit new crew members.
The seven species for the project, selected by Bondar in consultation with the United Nations Environment Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are Curlew Sandpiper, Black-Tailed Godwit, Lesser Flamingo, Piping Plover, Sprague’s Pipit, Red Knot rufa species, and Whooping crane .
The project plans to host educational exhibitions and events, but during the pandemic, it decided to create online story maps. These maps provide information about the biology and threats to survival of each species, as well as photos, videos, and maps of land use changes. The first completed story map covers a little flamingo.
Additionally, CSA’s Earth Exploration, an educational project that uses images from space on an interactive map, integrates bird migration information. The map contains photographs from space, information on each species, and resources for teachers. Users can learn about species, breeding areas, migratory paths, and winter regions.
Worldwide, about 1,500 bird species are facing extinction, and disrupting migratory corridors is a serious threat. Satellite imagery helps draw attention to these threats.
“The satellite imagery shows the location of the habitat in the wider planet,” Bondar says. “The overlap of emotion and vision focuses people on memorization.”
Taking pictures from the space station presents unique challenges, including the speed at which the station is moving – five miles per second – and the crew’s busy schedule. “You have these small periods of time running through a site and not a lot of time to prepare,” says Saint Jacques. “You are looking ahead as the scene comes towards you very quickly and you only have a few seconds over that location and a few more seconds while you look back as you fly away. Chasing the right frame is a kind of art.”
Additionally, all logistics must be in place, including aiming and having the correct viewfinder, while also taking into account the amount of cloud cover and the season.
But the effort is worth it. “The distances these birds fly are still instinctively mysterious for zoologists,” says Saint Jacques. “It takes humans enormous technology to fly around the world, and birds do just that. I’ve gained more respect for these animals, to see that the whole world is their environment.”
Bondar notes that almost everyone has a camera these days, even if only on a phone, providing an accessible lens through which to view nature. “Photography can reconnect people with the natural world. From space, we can see complete migration corridors and patterns that we did not know existed. It is a view of the extraordinary exploits of these birds.”
For Saint Jack, one of the least tangible benefits of space exploration is this new perspective. “The space station is a great testament to the unifying power of space exploration. Very quickly you feel that you are not a citizen of a particular country, but that you are from Earth. We share this planet with many other species, and we have a responsibility to be decent housemates.”