Get Ready to Set Your Clocks for Moon Time

White House instructs NASA to figure out a unified standard of time to aid future missions
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 3, 2024 8:52 AM CDT
NASA Is Coming Up With Moon Time
A light fog is seen as the moon rises over the southern coastal city of Larnaca in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, Monday, March 25, 2024.   (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

In the future, we'll have Earth time and we'll have Moon time. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on Tuesday directed NASA to establish what it called Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC), "a unified standard of time for the moon and other celestial bodies" whose gravitational forces alter how time unfolds as we know it on Earth, per Reuters. Under Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, when gravity is weaker, as on the moon, time passes more quickly. In Tuesday's memo, OSTP chief Arati Prabhakar said an Earth-based clock on the moon would appear to lose 58.7 microseconds on average for each Earth day, which could be rather disruptive.

On Earth, the atomic clocks at the US Naval Observatory in Washington represent the most precise timekeeping devices available. "They're the heartbeat of the nation, synchronizing everything," Kevin Coggins, NASA's space communications and navigation chief, tells Reuters. "You're going to want a heartbeat on the moon." Establishing a unified standard of time is necessary to coordinate operations, synchronize spacecraft missions, aid communications between Earth and the moon, and to prevent errors, an OSTP official tells Reuters. "Imagine if the world wasn't syncing their clocks to the same time, how disruptive that might be and how challenging everyday things become."

Coordinated Lunar Time could operate like the internationally recognized Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) on Earth, relying on a network of atomic clocks established around the moon. But international agreements between the 36 signatories of the Artemis Accords, laying out guidelines for responsible exploration of the Moon and outer space, will be needed to figure out how to implement it. OSTP has given NASA until the end of 2026 to work out the issue, per the Guardian. NASA is expected to land astronauts on the moon in September of that year. (More NASA stories.)

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