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Living on Mars Time: What If Your Day Lasted 24 Hours, 39 Minutes and 35 Seconds?

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity used its left navigation camera to record this view of the step down into a shallow depression called Yellowknife Bay.
The NASA Mars rover Curiosity used its left navigation camera to record this view of the step down into a shallow depression called Yellowknife Bay.
Photo by NASA/JPL-CalTech

Kirsten Siebach didn't want to go to the party.

"There's just no way I can make it at 10 p.m.," she found herself thinking, "because that's breakfast time."

For weeks Siebach had been falling asleep in church and calling her mother daily to check her own sanity. But it was her friend's birthday, so she decided to give the party a try. She walked in eating a banana and attempted some chitchat, but within minutes she fled, nauseated by the smell of beer. "I couldn't even talk about anything on Earth. ... My friends probably thought I was on Mars."

And she was on Mars — or, at least, on Mars time.

Siebach studies planetary geology at Caltech under John Grotzinger, the chief project scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover. The $2.5 billion probe has been roaming the Red Planet since its spectacular Aug. 6 landing, examining soil samples, taking photographs and looking for evidence of water and life.

For the first three months of the mission, about 250 engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in La Cañada-Flintridge, known as JPL, lived according to the Martian clock. So did the international cadre of scientists in town to work on the rover, about 200 of whom were around at any given time.

The idea was to maximize the efficiency of research. But it wreaked hell on earthly schedules: A day on Mars, which is called a "sol," lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds — just enough of a difference from Earth's 24-hour days to slowly knock everything out of whack.

The team would report to JPL in the late afternoon one week, but by the next week the start time had crept to the evening. And from there it would cycle later and later, until after a month they were again beginning work in the late afternoon.

The practice began in 1997 with the three-month-long Pathfinder mission. And though the Curiosity's primary mission will be two years long, JPL decided to stay on Mars time for only the first three months — partly because that's how long the team could withstand the topsy-turvy experience.

Indeed, the schedule caused perpetual jet lag, disconnected the scientists and engineers from their families and friends, and exacerbated the already zany atmosphere created when hundreds of the biggest geeks in the world are debating what to do with the robot they just landed on another planet.

Behind the tightly drawn shades of the brightly lit, two-floor headquarters for the laboratory's surface operations, in JPL's Building 264, excitement and sleep deprivation engendered an environment several scientists and engineers describe as "loopy." At least one topographical feature on Mars is now named "Shmutz." One night, a team of Spanish scientists from Madrid and a team of French scientists from Toulouse decided to decorate the wall between their respective rooms to resemble the Pyrénées, the mountain range that separates France and Spain. Now the wall includes iconic photos of home on either side.

During those Mars nights, "Some science arguments ... crossed into the absurd," Siebach recalls, including one exhausted engineer's elaborate, nonsensical analogy involving a beached whale. The flurry of Internet hype surrounding Curiosity's landing, including marriage proposals for "Mohawk Guy," JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi, and tweets from @sarcasticrover, circulate the room "pretty quickly if it's 2 a.m.," she adds.

No one was allowed to serve for more than four days a week on the primary operations team, a rotating group of leaders, but most people couldn't stay away even when they weren't on shift: They still came to JPL to help out every sol. Exuberant JPL engineer (and Twitter personality) Scott Maxwell, who wrote much of Curiosity's software and likes to think of driving the rover as exploring Mars in his "robot body," worked 92 days in a row.

"You don't want to miss anything!" he gushes.

Research scientist Bethany L. Ehlmann's office at Caltech boasts a Mars globe, a photo of Dr. Evil (the rover also has "frickin' laser beams attached," after all) and a bumper sticker proclaiming, "My other vehicle zaps rocks on Mars." The isolation and the irregular schedule enabled more casual and democratic conversations, she says, where grad students could "meet these people whose papers you're reading" and offer hypotheses and solutions with equal authority.

"If somebody has a good idea, you're going to take it," Siebach says.

If someone brought snacks, as Maxwell often did, you were going to take those, too; The Red Planet and Orbit cafeterias at JPL are open only from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, even as workers stayed on-site for all hours of the night.

"Your stomach goes crazy," Maxwell says.

Some adhered to strict schedules, ignoring hunger pangs in favor of eating at predetermined "normal" hours. Others binged indiscriminately on coffee, peanut butter–filled pretzels, Jack in the Box and, most of all, ice cream — at least while it lasted. As a congratulatory morale booster following the successful landing of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, in 2004, JPL had parked a stocked ice cream cooler, the kind you might find at a gas station, outside the main meeting room.

The cooler soon became "a big food source," Ehlmann says, with some snackers wolfing down two or three helpings a day. First to go were vanilla ice cream bars covered in hard chocolate; next, ice cream sandwiches. Finally, famished eggheads settled begrudgingly for a fudge bar or an ice cream cup with a wooden spoon.

"It was never enough," says science operations team chief Nicole Spanovich. "They would restock on Wednesdays and we would deplete it over the weekend."

Eventually, JPL began restocking twice a week.

Earthly obligations interrupted the Martian lives of some more than others. Those who left their lives behind in Canada, Denmark or New York found it easiest to adjust to the otherworldly time zone, while those who live in and around Pasadena struggled to fit classes and families into their constantly rotating schedule, desperately snatching a few hours of sleep here and there.

"When I was much younger, on Spirit and Opportunity, Mars time was just a giant party," says Spanovich, now 30. This time, some of her colleagues slept on a different side of the house just to escape their rowdy earthling kids. Only JPL flight director David Oh remained somewhat immune: His wife and three young children joined him in living on Mars time before school started in September, going bowling at 4 a.m. and picnicking at midnight.

By the time the mission switched back to Earth time on Nov. 5, everyone was ready to sacrifice efficiency for a regular bedtime. Now, a project that might have taken five days on Mars time takes eight to 10.

Spanovich sighs, thinking of the logistical nightmare of coordinating conference calls between scientists working from Australia, England and California. "We gather in a meeting room where it used to be packed, standing room only, and now it's only 10 people, and you have a bunch of people on the phone and empty chairs," she says.

"It's a grind. You have to check your email and you have meetings and you have the same enjoyments and frustrations of any job, but there are moments when I'm looking at pictures and it hits me, and I say, 'Oh my God. This came from Mars today.' That's cool."

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