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Scientists are trying to create a lunar time zone

Scientists are exploring a standard moon time so computers, programs, systems, vehicles and rockets can operate together for maximum precision.
Posted at 2:29 PM, Mar 03, 2023

As Albert Einstein theorized space and time are relative, the time on my watch down here at Johnson Space Center Houston, is Central Standard Time. But what time is it on the moon

Space agencies around the world, including our very own NASA and the European Space Agency are rocketing to a new goal — the Artemis mission — people orbiting the moon in 2024, and perhaps a lunar landing by 2025.  

And what's really important is accuracy in navigation and in the time.

Brice Dellandrea and scientists at the European Space Agency are figuring out ways to create a lunar time zone, debating whether a single organization should set and maintain time on our celestial neighbor. 

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If all goes well during the three-week flight, the capsule will be propelled into an orbit around the moon and then return to Earth in December.

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"When you want to ensure navigation around the moon, when you want to develop a navigation infrastructure, you have to be very, very, very accurate on the ways that you tell time on the moon, because there are a lot of phenomenons at the opening and you can very well make mistakes in your time management. And this relates in error, in position. And this can be dangerous for an astronaut," Dellandrea said.

It won't be just a quaint time zone in addition to ours, but rather a standard for computers, programs, systems, vehicles and rockets — the very things astronauts depend on to all operate together with maximum precision for survival.

"If you have one system that maybe belongs to a completely different country and maybe is run by an entirely different organization and it's governments, they can then approach to the ground and its time clock is off. Well, an hour later, you can be completely embedded in the dirt," Adler Planetarium Director Geza Gyuk said.

There are also technical issues to consider — clocks run faster on the moon, gaining 56 microseconds per day. Adding a complexity — the passage of time occurs differently in lunar orbit as opposed to its surface. 

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"If you put two clocks together synchronized, you put one into space at the highest. When you get it back, it will not give you the same time. And if you put it in a lower gravitational field, actually, this clock will run faster, which is the case on the moon," Dellandrea continued.

Most importantly, it has be to be practical for the astronauts working in orbit or on the moon itself.  

"It's clear you're not going to be able to synchronize the earth's rotation period with the moons because they're just so different," Gyuk said. "So, moon time is always going to be a little odd. You know, people won't be getting up at sunrise and going to bed at sunset unless they want to stay awake for 14 days."

A moon day is equivalent to about 29.5 of our Earth days. The ESA scientists hope to have a framework for a Standard Moon Time worked out in one Earth year, which is about 12 and a quarter Moon days.