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Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 1

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Katie WorthEditor’s note: Researchers exploring Mars via rover and satellite have to adapt to the longer day on the Red Planet. Katie Worth, whose Can Earthlings Adapt to the Longer Day on Mars? for Scientific American earlier this week describes the consequences of sleep-pattern changes, is trying it out herself. Follow her experiences in living on “Mars time” at this blog to see how it affects her sleep and behavior. This post is the first in a series.

When my editors suggested I live on Mars time for a while and write about how it feels, pretty much everyone else (and by “everyone else” I mean five NASA officials, four sleep scientists and my mom) was skeptical.

But never being one to heed advice like “You’re going to absolutely hate it,” and “This experiment will make you prone to walking under a bus and dying,” of course I immediately accepted the proposal.

Mars is smaller than Earth, but it rotates more slowly, which results in a day 40 minutes longer than the 24 hours we enjoy on our planet. When NASA lands a roving robot on Mars, which it has successfully done seven times in the last 36 years, its operations teams must live for a while on Mars time, so the rovers can take full advantage of every moment of daylight on the Red Planet. So, say today their work schedule was 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. (pretending for a moment they’re not pulling 15 hour shifts), tomorrow they would arrive closer to 9 A.M. In a week they would be showing up at 1 P.M., and in three weeks, at 10 P.M.

As it turns out, this spazzy schedule is incredibly obnoxious, because as you slog through two time zones every three days, everyone else in your life (in this case “everyone else” means your spouse, your kid’s daycare provider, and your favorite Peet’s barista) stubbornly adheres to just one time zone, as does the sun, which is largely in charge of setting your body clock.

But it’s not all bad. Here are some are some anticipated pros of living on Mars time:

  1. I can get out of helping my friends move on Saturday morning. Dang, you know that’s smack in the middle of Marsnight! Sorry about that.
  2. For me, the stakes are low. I work from home, and while being a freelance journalist is challenging and fun, it’s not like the fate of a $2.5 billion planetary exploration mission will be jeopardized if I become as fatigued as a cowardly football player and fall asleep on my keyboard.
  3. I work alone so I don’t have to worry about having affairs with my coworkers. Which apparently has been a nontrivial problem on some Mars missions. NASA engineer and sci-fi author Gentry Lee, who has worked on every rover project since the 1976 Viking missions, says  that people living Mars time have the habit of getting divorced. “As you might expect, the people working on Mars time have a high affinity for bonding with one another,” he says, chuckling. “Well come on, it’s a normal thing – you’ve just been sweating your butt off for 10 hours with your colleague next door and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and, gosh, you’d like to have a drink, and they say, ‘Well, you can come to my apartment!’”
  4. I can finally be cool enough to shut the bars down. I live in Santiago, Chile, and like most Latin American cities, bars here don’t close till well after dawn. Usually I am the party pooper who leaves while the stars are still visible. Not anymore!
  5. I can finally put all these rolls of aluminum foil and duct tape to good use. NASA can afford real blackout curtains and special, sleep-inducing light bulbs, but I get to try some DIY tricks. I can feel a Pinterest board in the works.
  6. I get to join an awesome and exclusive club that includes this kid, who appears to be the smartest and coolest 13-year-old boy in the history of time. He and his siblings followed their father, Curiosity mission flight director David Oh, into Mars time for a month last summer, and he blogged about it.
  7. This is probably the closest I’ll ever get to actually living on another planet. My lifelong dream of being an interplanetary astronaut is starting to look like it might not come true, but at least I can pretend.

There are also, of course, a few drawbacks:

  1. It’s possible I will die a terrible and unexpected death, according to Harvard University sleep scientist Steven Lockley, who apparently has a lot in common with my mom. “I hope you’re getting paid well for this because it’s going to knock you about a bit,” he advises. “Don’t plan anything really vital over this time. I don’t want you driving, because you would be a true hazard. And be very careful about things like crossing the road. I don’t want you walking under a bus because you’re half asleep.”
  2. It might be harder to stay motivated because I won’t be doing the most exciting thing imaginable. Every NASA employee I talked to who’d lived on Mars time said the adrenaline of discovery kept them going at least for the first while. Per the irrepressible Lee: “On Viking, I was sent home after working 17 days straight, at least 17 hours a day. It was just so damn exciting – it was the first time humanity had ever had a prolonged mission on another planet. When I got up in the morning, I would rush down to find out what the temperature was on Mars. It was fascinating, but that’s because nobody had ever done anything like that before.”
  3. Santiago is entirely bereft of places to buy ice cream cones at 6 A.M. Or at least, as far as I can tell. If you know otherwise, give me the scoop (har har) in the comment section.

As you can see, the pros clearly outweigh the cons. And thus encouraged, I launch into Day 1 of my Marstime adventure.

Katie Worth About the Author: Katie Worth is a science writer based in Santiago, Chile. Her hobbies include hiking, living in large foreign cities, and clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia. She expects this blog to become less and less coherent as she becomes more and more sleep-deprived.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 6:16 am 02/2/2013

    “… like most Latin American cities, bars here don’t close till well after dawn.”
    Pardon my ignorance, but does this explain the siesta?

    Link to this
  2. 2. david123 7:21 am 02/2/2013

    There’s already a sort of a model for this here on Earth and I’ve experienced it myself: towns and villages north of the Arctic Circle.

    I know it’s not exactly the same thing but in the summer time really does get out of whack for everyone, but especially the kids, who tend to stay up all night (as defined by the clock) and then have to shift back abruptly to a normal schedule when school starts.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting experiment, Katie, and an interesting blog.

    Link to this

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