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As Dad helps control Curiosity, family will live on 'Mars time'

Challenges are many when 24x7 becomes 24:39x7 … and 3 children are along

By Paul McNamara on Thu, 08/02/12 - 11:49am.


Once Curiosity lands on Mars, NASA lead flight director David Oh and his colleagues responsible for the rover's operation will be required to live their earthly lives on Mars time. Oh's wife, Bryn, and their three children - Braden, 13, Ashlyn, 10, and Devyn, 8 -- will do so as well, by choice and in the spirit of adventure.

The idea to join in on Dad's time shift was Mom's, and son Braden has started a blog called Marstimr to chronicle their experiences. The three of them agreed to answer a few of my questions via email.   

What's the difference between Mars time and Earth time? And what are some of the implications for the mission and those running it?

DAVID: Once the rover lands, it operates on a daily schedule where it works during the day and goes to sleep at night.  The engineers on Earth send the rover a new set of commands every Mars morning.  To get those commands ready on time for the rover every day, the engineers work on Mars time.  Their clock is synchronized with the Martian clock, and moves 39 minutes every day.


BRADEN: A day on Earth is 24 hours, but a day on Mars is about 24 hours and 40 minutes.  Anyone on Mars time will wake up 40 minutes later than they did the day before (we get up 8:00 day 1, 8:40 day 2, 9:20 day 3, etc.), and will consequently get an extra 40 minutes of sleep.  It's more complicated than that, because the whole day shifts, but that's pretty hard to describe.  By the middle of August however, we will be asleep during the day, and awake at night.

BRYN: We have chosen not to add 39 minutes to each day.  We will actually add 30 minutes to each day for the first week or so until we start going to sleep after the sun is up.  That will both give us the chance to start off "slowly" and figure things out, plus it will give us more time to be awake during daylight hours.  Once our schedule really becomes inverted, we'll push our schedule an hour a day, "a time zone a day," to shorten the time we are working against the sun, and to right our schedule in time for school to start.  It will also give David the chance to have a week on "normal" time before having to move his schedule again. One way of looking at it is that we'll be going around the world in 30 days.

What prompted the decision to go on Mars time?

DAVID:  We want the family to be together on this adventure.  And it is an adventure to land on Mars and go exploring.

BRADEN: The family was up for it (we thought about how much fun it would be), so we're all switching over!  We will switch August 1, and switch back onto normal time in time for school (or possibly into the beginning of school).

BRYN: David will transition from Flight Director of Cruise Operations to Flight Director of Surface Operations once Curiosity has landed.  ... I jumped at the chance to take our family on to Mars time when I found out David would be continuing on to Surface.  Building a spacecraft and landing it on Mars is a life-changing experience.  I wanted the opportunity to include our entire family, especially our children.  There is a sense of adventure, of traveling into the unknown, that accompanies sending a spacecraft to Mars.  We will be capturing a piece of that as our family follows the Rover's schedule on Earth.