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Learning to live by martian clock

JPL staff gets used to roving time zones

By Cindy Chang
Staff Writer

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 my country."

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 cindy.chang@sgvn.com !en d!