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The push to get the moon its own time zone


We'll be looking up at the moon and the sun to watch the eclipse tomorrow. And we're looking to the moon more and more in other ways, though, as a new private and public space race takes off. And the increased commercial and scientific focus on the moon is leading to an interesting development - a moon time zone. Time moves a little faster there due to differences in gravity, and now the Biden administration is calling on NASA to create a new lunar standard time. It's needed because spaceflight needs extreme precision. And when lunar spacecraft and satellites operate on Earth-based time, that little, microscopic time difference could create problems. This seems like a topic to bring back our space lawyer for. Michelle Hanlon is the executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHELLE HANLON: Thanks so much, Scott. It's great to be here.

DETROW: Can you tell us a little more about why this new time zone is needed?

HANLON: So it's really interesting because, as you said, it's really important to be as exact as possible with respect to communications between Earth and the moon - and also recognizing now it's not just the U.S. going back to the moon by itself, right? We are going as the Artemis partners - right now, 36 nations - and they are spread out across the globe. So we've got to figure out one way where we can talk to everybody in the same time.

DETROW: I mean, how much is this about now versus the future? Is there enough activity orbiting the moon now to need this new time zone or is this just about just one more way that we are laying the groundwork for what we expect to be a ton of activity there?

HANLON: Scott, it's absolutely about the future and the infrastructure that we need on the moon to support human activity and a human community on the moon. What we're talking about is not just precision timing with our instruments but having people on the moon in their own time zone, so they're not completely wed to the Earth or to the United States in particular.

DETROW: Yeah. I mean, you - you're a space lawyer, not a physicist, but as best as you can, can you explain how exactly time moves more quickly on the moon?

HANLON: Sure. So what happens is that the gravitation of the moon is different enough from the Earth. And that sort of change - that minute change is enough to unsync (ph) the different atomic clocks. And so we really need to work hard to sync them properly, sort of on a - you won't notice it on a daily basis, but it will accumulate over time.

DETROW: I feel like I just watched "Interstellar" with that answer. Thank you so much. I mean, any sense of the timeline for this and just kind of the logistics of how this will work? You mentioned all the other countries with interest in the moon. Is this the U.S.-only project? Is this going to be a collaboration?

HANLON: I hope that this is the beginning of a collaboration. When we think about the geopolitical circumstances down here on Earth, it doesn't look particularly hopeful. It's been very hard for us to find agreements here on Earth and even agreements about things in space. We all agree that space should be exclusively for peaceful purposes. We all agree that, you know, we have free access and freedom of exploration and use. But as we get to the moon, we realized, wait a minute, we might be on top of each other. We're all looking. And when I say all, I mean the 36 Artemis partners and the multiple International Lunar Research Station partners - that's the program being led by China and Russia. We're all looking at the south pole of the moon. So we're going to be in conflict with each other just because we all want to get to the same resources. This could be the first stage of agreement and collaboration. Let's all agree on how we're going to tell time on the moon and how it's going to be keyed off.

DETROW: We last talked last fall, and since then, among other big developments, a private American uncrewed spacecraft has landed on the moon. NASA has delayed the Artemis return to the moon by about a year. While we have you on this topic, what is the biggest moon news that's happening that you're keeping an eye on right now?

HANLON: I mean, for me, the biggest news has been Intuitive Machines landing on the moon, our first soft landing by a commercial entity. But what's more exciting is that even though we had one sort of false start from Astrobotic, that hasn't slowed anybody down. Astrobotic is looking to get to the moon still. NASA just announced the acceptance of proposals for lunar rovers. Northrop Grumman has been awarded a proposal to build a train on the moon. I mean, I think this - we're just seeing a snowball effect of activities on the moon, and they just keep coming. All of them taken together, that's the most exciting thing about lunar exploration right now.

DETROW: We're going to have to follow up on the moon train later on. But in your professional opinion, does the moon need daylight savings (ph) time?

HANLON: I don't think anybody needs daylight savings (ph) time, Scott, honestly.


DETROW: We can all agree on that. That's Michelle Hanlon, the executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi. Thank you so much.

HANLON: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIROQUAI SONG, "SPACE COWBOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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