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Sunday, April 14, 2024

What time is it on the moon? White House tells NASA to decide.

The White House has directed NASA to establish a time standard for the moon, as the United States races to return to the moon, at a time when several countries including China and Russia, and private companies, have also set their sights on space.

A memo Tuesday from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy outlines the Biden administration’s desire “to establish time standards at and around celestial bodies other than Earth” and instructs the space agency to “develop celestial time standardization with an initial focus on the lunar surface” by December 2026.

The unified time standard will be known as “Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC),” the memo says.

A standardized time reference is needed because the moon has a weaker gravitational pull than Earth due to its smaller mass, meaning that time moves slightly faster on the moon than on Earth — on average, 58.7 microseconds per day, “with additional periodic variations,” the memo says.

The project, first reported by Reuters, will be important because “knowledge of time … is fundamental to the scientific discovery, economic development, and international collaboration that form the basis of U.S. leadership in space,” the memo said.

“The clocks run faster on the moon,” Catherine Heymans, the astronomer royal for Scotland and a professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, said in an interview. “This is one of the beauties of fundamental physics — crazy things happen.”

Heymans explained that “the way we define time on planet Earth is with an atomic clock.” Atomic clocks are affected by gravity, which means “if you took that same atomic clock up to the moon, then in 50 years it would be one second faster than the atomic clock on Earth.”

“So it’s a very small change in time” between the Earth and moon, she said, but as Einstein’s theories of relativity explain, time is “running faster on the moon than it is on Earth.” According to the theory, time moves differently depending on where you are in a gravity field, with time moving faster where gravity is weaker.

Timekeeping is an exact science for technologists — and in atomic time, a second is defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a cesium atom.

Separately, Heymans notes that a day on the moon — to include a day and a night — is also different from a day on Earth. A lunar day is 29.5 Earth days, she said. “This means that on the moon, the sun is up for roughly two Earth weeks, and it’s then dark and nighttime for roughly the next two Earth weeks.”

The White House memo says one of the key reasons for the standardization of time is due to the fact that the United States plans to “return humans to the Moon and develop capabilities to enable an enduring presence.”

NASA’s Artemis moon program aims to realize the U.S. goal of returning astronauts to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. Artemis II aims to send a human crew around the moon, and its crew will include the first woman, the first African American and the first Canadian to fly on a moon mission. NASA hopes to launch Artemis III, involving a human moon landing, by September 2026.

The time standardization comes as China, India, Russia, Japan and others are also pushing for a greater presence in space — China, in particular, has said it aims to land its first astronauts on the moon before 2030. Private companies are also developing initiatives to send commercial spacecraft to the moon’s surface and orbit, for scientific research and mineral mining.

“U.S. leadership in defining a suitable standard — one that achieves the accuracy and resilience required for operating in the challenging lunar environment — will benefit all spacefaring nations,” the memo said, also noting that a “unified time standard will be foundational to these efforts.”

Last year, the European Space Agency issued its own memo outlining the “urgency of defining a common lunar reference time,” acknowledging a “new era of lunar exploration.”

Like the White House, it said it was no longer enough to base time on celestial bodies on Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, which is widely used on Earth, and that a more accurate time reference is needed as use of the moon becomes more sophisticated and common.

The standardization of timekeeping will also allow for more precision in spacecraft docking, data transfers, communication and navigation said Heymans. “There would be chaos on Earth if we didn’t all have the same time,” and it might soon be the case on an increasingly busy moon, she added.

Earth’s moon is the brightest and largest object in our night sky and is about 27 percent the size of the Earth, according to NASA.

“It’s always there in our lives. What’s so beautiful about the moon is, it’s constantly changing, it never looks the same from one night to the other,” said Heymans.

“If we want to safely work in that environment on the moon, we have to account for that fundamental different nature in time,” Heymans added. She also noted one perk of potential moon time: With no need to maximize sunlight hours, there would be no need for daylight saving time there.

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