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What a 40 min-day longer on Mars do to managing team on Earth?

We didn’t think that we are going to have Mars watches and the logistics of the time

Nagin Cox is a first-generation Martian. As a spacecraft engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cox works on the team that manages the United States’ rovers on Mars.

But working a 9-to-5 on another planet — whose day is 40 minutes longer than Earth’s — has particular, often comical challenges

Nagin Cox. Spacecraft operations engineer

Nagin Cox explores Mars as part of the team that operates NASA’s rovers. Full bio

So many of you have probably seen the movie “The Martian.” But for those of you who did not, it’s a movie about an astronaut who is stranded on Mars, and his efforts to stay alive until the Earth can send a rescue mission to bring him back to Earth.

Gladly, they do re-establish communication with the character, astronaut Watney, at some point so that he’s not as alone on Mars until he can be rescued. So while you’re watching the movie, or even if you haven’t, when you think about Mars, you’re probably thinking about how far away it is and how distant.

0:50 And, what might not have occurred to you is, what are the logistics really like of working on another planet of living on two planets when there are people on the Earth and there are rovers or people on Mars?

So think about when you have friends, families and co-workers in California, on the West Coast or in other parts of the world. When you’re trying to communicate with them, one of the things you probably first think about is: wait, what time is it in California? Will I wake them up? Is it OK to call?

even if you’re interacting with colleagues who are in Europe, you’re immediately thinking about: What does it take to coordinate communication when people are far away?

we don’t have people on Mars right now, but we do have rovers. And actually right now, on Curiosity, it is 6:10 in the morning. So, 6:10 in the morning on Mars. We have four rovers on Mars. The United States has put four rovers on Mars since the mid-1990s, and I have been privileged enough to work on three of them.

I am a spacecraft engineer, a spacecraft operations engineer, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles, California. And these rovers are our robotic emissaries they are our eyes and our ears, and they see the planet for us until we can send people. So we learn how to operate on other planets through these rovers. 

before we send people, we send robots. So the reason there’s a time difference on Mars right now, from the time that we’re at is because the Martian day is longer than the Earth day. Our Earth day is 24 hours, because that’s how long it takes the Earth to rotate, how long it takes to go around once. So our day is 24 hours. It takes Mars 24 hours and approximately 40 minutes to rotate once.

that means that the Martian day is 40 minutes longer than the Earth day. So teams of people who are operating the rovers on Mars, like this one, what we are doing is we are living on Earth, but working on Mars. So we have to think as if we are actually on Mars with the rover.

Our job, the job of this team, of which I’m a part of, is to send commands to the rover to tell it what to do the next day. To tell it to drive or drill or tell her whatever she’s supposed to do. So while she’s sleeping — and the rover does sleep at night because she needs to recharge her batteries and she needs to weather the cold Martian night.

And so the rover sleeps. So while she sleeps, we work on her program for the next day. So I work the Martian night shift. (Laughter)

in order to come to work on the Earth at the same time every day on Mars — like, let’s say I need to be at work at 5:00 p.m., this team needs to be at work at 5:00 p.m. Mars time every day, then we have to come to work on the Earth 40 minutes later every day, in order to stay in sync with Mars. That’s like moving a time zone every day.

one day you come in at 8:00, the next day 40 minutes later at 8:40, the next day 40 minutes later at 9:20, the next day at 10:00. So you keep moving 40 minutes every day, until soon you’re coming to work in the middle of the night the middle of the Earth night. Right? So you can imagine how confusing that is.

Hence, the Mars watch. (Laughter) This weights in this watch have been mechanically adjusted so that it runs more slowly. Right? And we didn’t start out — I got this watch in 2004 when Spirit and Opportunity, the rovers back then. We didn’t start out thinking that we were going to need Mars watches.

Right? We thought, OK, we’ll just have the time on our computers and on the mission control screens, and that would be enough. Yeah, not so much. Because we weren’t just working on Mars time, we were actually living on Mars time. And we got just instantaneously confused about what time it was.

you really needed something on your wrist to tell you: What time is it on the Earth? What time is it on Mars? And it wasn’t just the time on Mars that was confusing; we also needed to be able to talk to each other about it. So a “sol” is a Martian day — again, 24 hours and 40 minutes. So when we’re talking about something that’s happening on the Earth, we will say, today.

for Mars, we say, “tosol.” (Laughter) Yesterday became “yestersol” for Mars. Again, we didn’t start out thinking, “Oh, let’s invent a language.” It was just very confusing.

I remember somebody walked up to me and said, “I would like to do this activity on the vehicle tomorrow, on the rover.” And I said, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, or Mars, tomorrow?” We started this terminology because we needed a way to talk to each other. (Laughter)

Tomorrow became “nextersol” or “solorrow.” Because people have different preferences for the words they use. Some of you might say “soda” and some of you might say “pop.” So we have people who say “nextersol” or “solorrow.” And then something that I noticed after a few years of working on these missions, was that the people who work on the rovers, we say “tosol.”

The people who work on the landed missions that don’t rove around, they say “tosoul.” So I could actually tell what mission you worked on from your Martian accent. (Laughter) 

we have the watches and the language, and you’re detecting a theme here, right? So that we don’t get confused. But even the Earth daylight could confuse us. If you think that right now, you’ve come to work and it’s the middle of the Martian night and there’s light streaming in from the windows that’s going to be confusing as well.

you can see from this image of the control room that all of the blinds are down. So that there’s no light to distract us. The blinds went down all over the building about a week before landing, and they didn’t go up until we went off Mars time.

this also works for the house, for at home. I’ve been on Mars time three times, and my husband is like, OK, we’re getting ready for Mars time. And so he’ll put foil all over the windows and dark curtains and shades because it also affects your families.

And so here I was living in kind of this darkened environment, but so was he. And he’d gotten used to it. But then I would get these plaintive emails from him when he was at work. Should I come home? Are you awake? What time is it on Mars? And I decided, OK, so he needs a Mars watch. (Laughter)

But of course, it’s 2016, so there’s an app for that. (Laughter) So now instead of the watches, we can also use our phones. But the impact on families was just across the board; it wasn’t just those of us who were working on the rovers but our families as well.

This is David Oh, one of our flight directors, and he’s at the beach in Los Angeles with his family at 1:00 in the morning. (Laughter) So because we landed in August and his kids didn’t have to go back to school until September, they actually went on to Mars time with him for one month.

They got up 40 minutes later every day. And they were on dad’s work schedule. So they lived on Mars time for a month and had these great adventures, like going bowling in the middle of the night or going to the beach. And one of the things that we all discovered is you can get anywhere in Los Angeles at 3:00 in the morning when there’s no traffic.

we would get off work, and we didn’t want to go home and bother our families, and we were hungry, so instead of going locally to eat something, we’d go, “Wait, there’s this great all-night deli in Long Beach, and we can get there in 10 minutes!” So we would drive down — it was like the 60s, no traffic.

We would drive down there, and the restaurant owners would go, “Who are you people? And why are you at my restaurant at 3:00 in the morning?” So they came to realize that there were these packs of Martians, roaming the LA freeways, in the middle of the night — in the middle of the Earth night. And we did actually start calling ourselves Martians. So those of us who were on Mars time would refer to ourselves as Martians, and everyone else as Earthlings.

And that’s because when you’re moving a time-zone every day, you start to really feel separated from everyone else. You’re literally in your own world. So I have this button on that says, “I survived Mars time. Sol 0-90.” And there’s a picture of it up on the screen.

the reason we got these buttons is because we work on Mars time in order to be as efficient as possible with the rover on Mars, to make the best use of our time. But we don’t stay on Mars time for more than three to four months.

Eventually, we’ll move to a modified Mars time, which is what we’re working now. And that’s because it’s hard on your bodies, it’s hard on your families. In fact, there were sleep researchers who actually were studying us because it was so unusual for humans to try to extend their day. And they had about 30 of us that they would do sleep deprivation experiments on.

I would come in and take the test and I fell asleep in each one. And that was because, again, this eventually becomes hard on your body. Even though it was a blast. It was a huge bonding experience with the other members on the team, but it is difficult to sustain.

these rover missions are our first steps out into the solar system. We are learning how to live on more than one planet. We are changing our perspective to become multi-planetary. So the next time you see a Star Wars movie, and there are people going from the Dagobah system to Tatooine, think about what it really means to have people spread out so far.

What it means in terms of the distances between them, how they will start to feel separate from each other and just the logistics of the time. We have not sent people to Mars yet, but we hope to. And between companies like SpaceX and NASA and all of the international space agencies of the world, we hope to do that in the next few decades.

So soon we will have people on Mars, and we truly will be multi-planetary. And the young boy or the young girl who will be going to Mars could be in this audience or listening today.

I have wanted to work at JPL on these missions since I was 14 years old and I am privileged to be a part of it. And this is a remarkable time in the space program, and we are all in this journey together.

the next time you think you don’t have enough time in your day, just remember, it’s all a matter of your Earthly perspective.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
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