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What Time Is It?

So there is an easy answer for this on Earth now that us fancy monkeys have figured out that it is efficient to make zones for time. But that system makes basically no sense once we are on the moon, in orbit, on an asteroid, or on Mars. How the ‘f’ do we figure out what time zone Jupiter is in? Well…good news for you…there isn’t any good news…unless we have some sort of human-universal time, we are basically going back to the time when every town set their own clock.

The Fun part

3 February 2031
The (Now Commercialized) International Space Station
2130 Shipboard time | 1215 PST

Hey boss – your wife Addison just called. She seemed a tad agitated.

What do you mean John? God, it feels like I just got to sleep.

You did sir, and I’ll send you the recording. The short version is she just went into labor, and wants you back.

Fuck John, ok, sorry you had to take that call. Just send me the recording and I’ll call her back after I listen to it. Can you ask Emily to spool up the lander, and I’ll head towards the airlock as soon as I change.

—–Recording Begins——

Caller: Addison
Location: San Francisco

What the fuck do you mean he isn’t available? Is he in a meeting with the fucking pope? I told him that unless he is dying he better be available for my calls. Listen very closely John, I recognize you are trying to protect your boss, but I am going into labor with his kid here…so what exactly is so important that he isn’t there in the office.

Wait what do you mean he is in his room sleeping? It is lunchtime here.

Shipboard time? What the fuck is shipboard time? And why the fuck did he forward his calls to you? How come you are up?

John, you are not helping him at all by stalling like this. Just go get my husband and let him know he better be on the first shuttle back down here or I will remove his trachea when he gets back.

—–Recording Ends——-

John – you still there in the comm room?

Yea boss – whats up?

Seriously dude, I’m sorry about that. Addison is normally such a nice person. I have no idea what is going on with her.

Oh no worries sir, I have two kids – this is your first isn’t it?

Yea

Oh well, labor is a real bitch….and anything a woman says while in labor should never be counted against them. I certainly don’t.

Well – thanks John. I’ll probably be groundside for a couple weeks. Shoot me a note telling me what your favorite scotch is and I’ll bring it up next time I come.

The Real Deal

Time zones…we all have them…and realistically there aren’t a lot of us around who were alive when they weren’t in widespread use. But they are a fairly recent innovation. Until the late 1800s there was no such thing as time ‘zones’ in any standardized way. Before this towns set their own time according to their own sundial, or church clock tower, or some other time keeping device.

The advent of railroads made this system unworkable, but there wasn’t a consensus around how time should be kept initially. The International Meridian Conference in 1884 was the first step in a process that ultimately created the world’s time zones as we know them. But it took until 1920 for most countries in the world to fully get on board. And even now countries like the US continue to tinker with things like daylight savings time (the most recent change to DST was in 2007).

Cool but what about space?

Great question – although this whole website is about space you maybe you should just be a little more patient.

So – the whole basis for our time zones, as established by the International Meridian Conference is degrees of longitude. For those of you who slept through geography class (basically every single one of you American readers), those are the lines which run up and down on the globe. Each time zone is roughly 15 degrees of longitude wide, with the size of the actual zone ranging from about 600 miles to nearly 1100 miles depending how close you are to the equator.

Yes yes yes, I am getting to how this won’t work in space. Although, if you need to be told that there is no longitude in space then you really shouldn’t have slept through that geography class.

Right…there is no longitude in space. So our current time zone system won’t work. Theoretically we could decide that stations in geostationary orbits could share time zones with the part of the earth they permanently orbit over. This would probably be a good system, but with our only space stations having been in lower orbits, we have not had that option yet (currently the international space station orbits the globe about once every 90 minutes).

We also can’t use the sun to determine when it is ‘day’ because, again most places we will be in space are not going to have a 24 hour day/night cycle. For instance the moon has a ‘day’ equivalent of 29.5 Earth days, while Mars’ equivalent is about 25 hours.

One of the most likely solution is to have all stations, habitats and other locales in a given area (low earth orbit | Lagrange points | moon …etc) having the same time ‘zone’. The other probable solution is the permanent adoption of UTC as ‘space’ time (this is what the International Space Station does now). Realistically the second solution would be the more efficient one…but remember we are fancy monkeys who don’t like being the same as the other monkeys…so people are going to want to have their own special times :).

Any way we do it, time in space is going to be arbitrary, compared to what we are used to now. But luckily we all are used to carrying around devices that automatically update to the current times…that will at least make it easy to know what arbitrary time it is wherever we are.

Next Time

Next time, lets take a look at augmented reality and the possibilities that holds for repairs (of both humans and machines).

Until then – check out a way we might make food in space, or a possible vacation house that you could buy instead of that beach house you have been eyeing. If you want to hear a story about something specific or if you want me to come give a talk, customized to your organization, modeled on like one of these posts feel free to shoot me a note using the form below.

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