By Cassie Martin
August 22, 2015
Sara Morawetz may not live on Mars, but she knows what it feels like. The PhD student and artist-in-residence at Open Source Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, spent the last month living on Mars time. A day on the red planet is 39 minutes, 35.24 seconds longer than a day on Earth. That may not seem like much of a difference, but the extra minutes really add up. Out of sync with Earth time, her days eventually inverted then returned to normal, much like the waxing and waning cycles of the moon. Morawetz returned to Earth time on Saturday, August 22, 2015 and was joined by Michael Allison of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) to discuss the science behind her experience and the meaning of time.
“I had a very inspirational conversation with Michael in May last year discussing the general nature of time,” said Morawetz. “When he casually mentioned in passing about JPL scientists living on Mars time as part of the Curiosity Mission, I knew I had to do it as an art piece.”
During the intimate gathering in Morawetz’s Mars-on-Earth dwelling, Allison discussed the history of how scientists came to define planetary time as we know it today. Allison himself developed calculations used for the Mars24 Sun Clock, which is used to keep track of Mars time in a 24-hour format. Accurate timekeeping on Mars is essential for studying its weather and climate, which varies drastically on a daily and seasonal basis. Allison’s work has been instrumental in many Mars missions and have made understanding the planet’s past and present climate possible.
While Allison and other researchers tinker with how to scientifically define time, Morawetz’s experiment examined the intersection between the science of time and the reality of living it, which has implications for the potential of human life beyond Earth.
“Space travel really fascinates me because we have the opportunity to reset standards and re-examine the invisible standards that already exist,” she said. “Time is created around our reality and environment. But when our environment changes, our concept of time will change. How do you decide what an hour is and what a second is? Can you have two versions of a second? That’s something we’ll have to discuss. Are we okay with living in a changeable medium?”
Last year, NASA announced plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. Morawetz’s questions get to the heart of what it means to experience time, both philosophically and biologically. Can we overcome our 24 hour circadian rhythm, or is it so innate that living by a different time will take conscious effort? By Morawetz’s account, the transition wasn’t easy. From her log book:
It’s day. It’s night. It’s something in-between.
Does time even matter anymore?
You move forward. You move back. You are propelled by measures you are no longer marking.
Your hope turns on a dime, it quivers and dissipates. You are once again restless, anxious, uncomfortable. And as energy morphs into listlessness and your emotions ricochet, the inexorable march of the clock ticks on and on and on and on regardless.
You genuinely consider giving up. You’re tired and kind of over it. You’re not sure this crazy thing is worth it. A technical failure mars everything.
The isolation gets to you. As does the constant accounting for time. Time often passes and nothing happens, yet now every second past is a second wasted // one second longer than the other, and that one cuts the deepest.
An hour passes. Two. Time no longer counted by a clock or by light, but instead by a series of transitions. Another routine based upon action. The system isn’t gone, it’s just replaced by another. Time drifts past dreamlessly and you feel suspended.
You understand that the end is closer now but not close enough to count on yet.
For human colonization of Mars to be successful, Allison and Morawetz concluded that the first Martians will need a new calendar at the very least. “There’s a whole geeky subculture out there dedicated to developing a Mars calendar,” Allison said. “I myself took a whimsical interest in this and made my own contribution.” Allison’s version has 668 solar days divided into 22 months. January through December still remain—but 10 more months were added, some of which were named after prominent figures such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, and Carl Sagan.
“I hope someday people will be living on Mars,” he said. “It’s a harsh place and it will be a challenge to live there, but I’m fond of the idea that in the far future there will be more people living off the Earth than on it. We’ve put too much strain on the Earth. We could take advantage of all the space out there.”