Learning to live by martian clockJPL staff gets used to roving time zones
LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE -- The Kornfelds, like other families with young
children, live in several time zones simultaneously.
There is the continuously variable time zone of the 3-week-old infant,
regulated by hunger pangs rather than by the rising and setting of the sun.
The 2-year-old must be picked up from day care in the afternoon and put to
bed early. And then there are the adults who balance child care obligations
with long hours at demanding careers.
Lately, Richard Kornfeld's job as a Mars mission engineer at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena has thrown another wrinkle in his family's
already complicated lifestyle. With the successful landing of the rover
Spirit and the scheduled landing this weekend of its twin, Opportunity, he
has been reporting to work on Mars time, not Earth time.
The martian day is 39 minutes longer than an Earth day, which means that a
day shift will gradually morph into a night shift and then back again over
the course of about a month. Team members say the experience is not unlike
having a constant, low-grade case of jet lag.
"It's been a wild ride. Obviously I'm not seeing my family as much as I'd
like to," Kornfeld said. "It creates logistical problems -- who drops the
older one off at child care, who picks him up."
To keep track of the two time zones, Kornfeld, like many on the mission
team at JPL, wears two watches -- an ordinary Earth watch on one wrist and a
specially calibrated Mars watch on the other. The Mars watch is made by
Executive Jewelers, a Montrose-based company.
"I know somebody who's not bothering to get a Mars watch. He says he's
setting his alarm 40 minutes later each day, and that's all there is to it,"
said Scott Doudrick, a JPL engineer who commissioned the watch along with
colleague Julie Townsend. "But there's definitely a convenience involved in
not having to think about it and just knowing, instead of having to noodle
out the math."
Garo Ansherlian, the owner of Executive Jewelers, was skeptical when
Doudrick and Townsend approached him last fall, asking if he could make a
watch that would lose 99 seconds an hour, putting it 20 minutes behind a
normal watch for every 12-hour period.
Ansherlian consulted senior watchmakers, who told him not to waste his
time on such an impossible task. But after much tinkering, Ansherlian devised
a solution that has the watches losing or gaining 10 seconds a day, an
acceptable margin of error for a mechanical watch. The Mars watches require
only occasional calibration to keep them right on the mark.
"They challenged me if I can do it. I've proven that I could make
something they can use," said Ansherlian, an Armenian-American born in
Lebanon. "I'm not a scientist, but at least I did my part. I did my part for
The process begins with ordinary mechanical watches from established
brands like Seiko, Citizen and Orient. The watches are slowed down just the
right amount through a combination of gear adjusting, spring loosening and
adding weight to tiny mechanisms.
Ansherlian's workshop is now churning out Mars watches at a rate of about
20 per day. The first, and perhaps only, batch of Mars watches will be a
limited edition of 1,000.
About 150 have been sold so far. Priority went first to JPL personnel, but
these days Ansherlian is taking orders from around the world, including
Germany, England and France. Prices range from about $200 on the low end to
$500 for the "presidential edition."
Vice President Dick Cheney received a Mars watch when he visited JPL
earlier this month, and Ansherlian plans to mail watches to President George
W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as well.
For Doudrick, living on Mars time has been a surreal but rewarding
experience. Recently, he and his wife, a music teacher in the La Canada
Unified School District, have been catching breakfast together. His shift,
which begins at 2 p.m. Mars time, is coinciding with a day shift on Earth, at
least for the time being.
"It has been odd, especially always struggling to stay on Mars time or
acting normal on my days off," Doudrick said. "When I get home at 2 a.m.,
I'm awake and it feels like I should do things, but Earth time does not let
you do that."
Cindy Chang, (626) 578-6300