So much of our lives revolve around time.
Most people eat, sleep and work at roughly the same time each day. These times are structured around our 24 hour clock here on Earth. Imagine adjusting your entire schedule to fit the time clock of another planet.
Time affects everything you do, so changing your family’s time schedule completely is an enormous task. David Oh, flight director of NASA’s Mars rover, made the decision with his wife to put their entire family on the same time clock followed by the flight crew.
Time on Mars
The days on Mars are approximately 24 hours and 37 minutes long, just slightly longer than our days of 23 hours and 56 minutes on Earth. About 40 minutes doesn’t seem like a very significant time difference, but 37 minutes per day adds up quickly. It is common for everyone who works on a mission to Mars to adjust their schedule according to Martian time so that everyone working on the mission follows the same schedule. Most crew members have wristwatches that run on Mars time rather than Earth time so that they always know what time it is. This can be a big adjustment for the scientists and engineers that work on the project, but it is an even bigger adjustment when the entire family decides to adopt a Martian time schedule.
Astronauts have divided Mars into time zones that are similar to the time zones on Earth. There is a prime meridian on Mars, but the planet is not divided into equal time zones the way Earth is. Each mission that has landed on Mars has used their own time zone, according to the local solar time at the location they landed. One mission used true solar time, while the five other successful missions used offsets from local solar time to determine the time.
It takes the Earth about 365 days to orbit the sun, but it takes Mars approximately 687 days to complete its orbit. There are seasons on Mars that are similar to seasons on Earth, but the seasons are not equal in length. Spring in the northern hemisphere of Mars is the longest season, while spring in the southern hemisphere is the shortest season. If a calendar were created for Mars, a tropical year would probably be used because it matches the progression of seasons. A tropical year on Mars is slightly shorter than the number of days it takes for Mars to orbit the sun, at about 668 days.
Adopting the Martian Schedule
Most members of the mission support crew adjust their personal schedules to Mars time for a few months, but their families don’t follow suit. David Oh and his wife Bryn decided to take advantage of the unique opportunity to take their three kids along with the journey living on Martian time. They found that the entire family had trouble adjusting to the time schedule and everyone felt jet lagged a few weeks into their journey, but they believe the sacrifice of sleep was worth the experience of changing the way their family thinks about time.
About 40 minutes per day may not seem like a large adjustment, but those minutes add up over time. Nearly 800 people who are working on the project have changed their schedules to follow the Martian time schedule. The Oh family had to create a sign for their front door warning visitors of their odd time schedule. Some days their schedule doesn’t vary widely from their normal time schedule on Earth, while other days the family eats breakfast in the middle of the afternoon and goes to be at dawn. When the Curiosity was about to touch down on August 5 2012, the kids went to bed around 11:30 p.m. and woke around 10 a.m. the next day.
The Oh family has made many adjustments to their home to make following the Martian time schedule possible. The windows in their bedrooms are covered with cloth or aluminum foil so that no sunlight can get through while they are sleeping. They have hung a handmade calendar in their hallway to keep track of the days and their schedules are written on a large mirror. The digital clock in their master bedroom is set to Mars time, rather than Earth time. Bryn keeps a spreadsheet that she updates often with her husband’s work hours and important family activities. They wear wireless devices that monitor the number of steps they take, the number of calories they burn and their sleep patterns.
The Positives and Negatives of Living on Mars Time
Following an entirely different time schedule than most people on the Earth can be very difficult, and many people are not supportive. When David told his coworkers of his family’s decision to follow Martian time together, many of them thought he was crazy. Others thought it was cool to have the entire family follow the alternate schedule.
Most of the time the family has found their schedule to be rewarding. The children saw their first shooting stars while going on hikes around their neighborhood late at night. They also avoided tourists in Hollywood by having a late dinner. The family was able to enjoy street performers on the Hollywood Walk of Fame without being crowded out. They have also seen a midnight screening of a film about zombies and gone bowling afterward. The family has also gone biking in empty parking lots and the youngest was able to shed the training wheels from his bike without worrying about hitting cars or other bikers.
The children have all had trouble adjusting to the new schedule. The 10 year old often wakes up earlier than she should and avoids taking naps. The teen has an easier time with the schedule because he enjoys staying up late. The family has made sacrifices to make their schedule work, such as trading in a vacation for a “staycation” that allowed them to maintain their Martian schedule. They have difficulty scheduling music lessons, dental appointments and play dates because the family is often asleep during business hours and the hours they keep change daily. They have had difficulty answering simple questions such as “What time is it now?“.
Is that Earth time or Mars time?!
One of the highlights of the Oh family’s journey following Mars time was a party they hosted after the landing. They threw a backyard barbecue with a Mars theme, including a cake in the shape of Gale Crater, the new home of Curiosity. They decorated it with candles in the shape of stars.
The Oh family aren’t the only ones having difficulties adjusting to Mars time.
The mission workers have work hours that change often because they depend on when spacecraft that are orbiting fly over the rover landing site. These spacecraft relay signals back to the crew on Earth. One shift of workers sets up commands that spell out what Curiosity‘s plans for the day are, another shift analyzes pictures that are beamed back from the spacecraft. Workers cope by talking to each other like they would if they were on Mars. They say good morning even if it is night on Earth. Cots are available to the mission workers for naps and free ice cream is also available.
The Oh family is just getting used to their Martian time schedule and has recently stayed up the entire night and slept all day.
The children still get tired at night even if they haven’t been awake long, and David accidentally went to work an hour early once.
The family will remember their Martian journey for the rest of their lives, but they will be adjusting back to Earth time very soon because school is starting.
The family has enjoyed their unusual journey, but the kids are also looking forward to getting back to enjoying good old Earth time.
But some others are not so lucky, and they’ll be remaining on Mars time rather permanently: