February 8, 2013 | 2
Editor’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 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 third in a series.
Having just listened to expert advice that I diligently control my light and darkness exposure and avoid human contact during my Mars time experiment, I immediately deluded myself that none of that was strictly necessary.
My friend Meagan, visiting South America on vacation, wanted to get closer to the Andes, whose muscular presence dominates the Santiago skyline. We decided on a camping trip to some natural hot springs.
Perhaps a Martian flying spaghetti monster was trying to protect me from my advice-shirking ways, because the logistics were problematic from the start. We got a late start, since my Mars schedule didn’t get me out of bed till noon. Some 31 calls to rental car companies later, we concluded that there was not a single vehicle available for any quantity of cash in the entire Santiago metropolitan region; and the nearest camping gear rental place closed moments before we called them.
We took a bus to the end of the paved road in the vertiginously narrow Cajon del Maipo valley, and then employed our thumbs, doing our best “don’t-worry-we’re-not-serial-killers” impression. Soon, we were picked up by a nice couple out on a leisurely drive; with the help of a 10,000 Chilean peso note, they were convinced to extend their outing to the Valle de Colina thermal hot springs, where they dropped us off just before dark.
Since Santiago that afternoon had been approximately the temperature of the surface of the sun—nay, the outer atmosphere of the sun—it seemed unlikely to us that it would be cold anywhere else on our planet, let alone a mere three-hour journey away. But as the sun set on our campsite at 8,100 feet, and we realized we’d be sleeping under the stars because the stakes of my jenky homemade tent wouldn’t pierce the rocky terrain, and that the blankets we’d brought to sleep on were approximately as thin as the Martian atmosphere, we knew we had miscalculated.
But since we’re not the type of folks who allow the threat of hypothermia to discourage us, we cheerfully downed our dinner of Cheetos and Oreos and climbed into the hot springs. I was determined to stay there ‘til my Mars bedtime—5:30 A.M. Earth time, or until I became pruned enough that someone actually mistook me for a Martian and lured me out with Reese’s Pieces, whichever came first.
As dusk fell, the sky performed a shy striptease, slowly shedding its layers of light. The planets appeared, and the boldest stars. Mars’s ruddy orb, my circadian home, was just setting to the west. Soon, the Milky Way was glistening like a silver choker across the broad neck of the cosmos; from it dangled the large and small Magellanic clouds, celestial jewels that adorn only the Southern Hemisphere.
Meanwhile, in my brain, my Martian chronometer was having trouble fending off the dark side of the circadian force. My body clock was reading the situation for what it was: nighttime, not mid-Mars afternoon.
In the previous several days, I’d managed to (mostly) entrain my body to stay up and sleep in 40 minutes later each night with the help of some bright lights in my apartment for the dark hours, tin foil over the windows for the mornings, and my sunglasses for the first hours after I woke up. This works because the strongest determinant of our sleep-wake cycle is light. The absence of light tells our body clocks that it is nighttime, releasing armies of melatonin, which march down thousands of cellular pathways throughout our bodies.
Those armies fully engaged, my eyelids began to feel a little extra gravitational pull. I passed the time watching the half moon painting the Andes with a delicate light. I made friends with a nice gay couple in one of the springs who took time away from making out to teach me that when the moon is waxing, it’s shaped like a C (for “creciente,” which means growing in Spanish) and while it’s waning, it looks like a D (for “decreciente,” or shrinking), which somehow had eluded the otherwise passable education I received from California’s public schools.
At around 3:30 A.M. I admitted defeat. I wandered back to our campsite, where I found Meagan curled up to the size of an embryonic mouse in a pathetic attempt to stay warm. I joined her, cursing the closed camping gear store and willing my feet to stop impersonating glaciers.
A few hours later, my free airline eye mask proved itself under matched against the blaring sun. We breakfasted on granola bars and hitchhiked back down the valley with a van full of jolly 20-year-olds.
Since then, I’ve had trouble re-synching with Mars time. I’ve managed to stay up to my scheduled bedtimes, but I wake up well shy of Mars dawn. Sleep deprivation is creeping; I find myself staring off into space even more than usual (which is saying a lot), and my synapses seem to be taking their sweet time to fire even when I order them to do so.
And thus I find myself in the heart of Mars madness. Tonight, I’ll be staying up till 7:30 A.M.—finally breaking the dawn barrier. But according to NASA Flight Director David Oh, that may in fact help me adjust. His family followed him into Marstime for the first month after Curiosity landed last year, and his three kids managed to make the adjustment without much trouble.
“It got hard when they were staying up to 5 A.M. or 6 A.M., because then it’s a long night. But remarkably, once they were staying up until 8 A.M., it became easier again, because when the kids are sleepy you can just send them outside and the sun wakes them up.”
Keeping my room cool enough to doze through Santiago’s 90-something degree afternoons will be a different challenge. I may just find myself wishing for another frigid night under the magnificent stars in the Andes.
Previously in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX