Time zones are always tricky — but interplanetary time differences are even harder to keep track of, and now that NASA's Mars InSight lander has successfully landed on the Red Planet, that's precisely what mission staff members have to do.
A Martian day isn't too different in length from a terrestrial day — it's only about 37 minutes longer. But over time, all those minutes add up to offset a Martian day, called a sol, from Earthly schedules.
And it turns out that's a pain for the people who manage Martian robots like the InSight lander — people like payload systems engineer Farah Alibay. The InSight team is small enough that the members don't break into shifts like the humans behind the Curiosity rover do; instead, they work as one group, Alibay told Space.com in an interview.
The people on the team also want to work during the Martian night, while the spacecraft isn't working. So they signed on yesterday at 3 p.m. local time at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California (6 p.m. EST, 2300 GMT) for a shift lasting 12 hours, Alibay said before InSight landed. But if they always followed Martian time, their schedule would drift 37 minutes from day to day, which is hard for people to manage. [NASA's InSight Mars Lander: Full Coverage]
"Doing that shift every day is just too hard for human bodies," Alibay said. So members of the team have worked out a compromise. "When the planets align and we're able to work during our daytime and Martian nighttime, then we work every day, and then when they don't, we work every other day. And there's plenty of science analysis to be done on the ground in between those days anyway, so it kind of works out."
The mission's calendar will run in sols, with the landing on Nov. 26 marking Sol 0. (InSight's science mission is scheduled to last 709 sols total, or nearly two terrestrial years.) So, for Alibay and her colleagues, who have to navigate Earthly sunrises, errands and family schedules while they work with the Insight lander, it's a relief not to be stuck on Mars time for all 709 of those sols.
Space.com managing editor Tariq Malik contributed reporting to this article. Email Meghan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us @Spacedotcom and Facebook. Original article on Space.com.