Tue, Aug 21, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Like NASA rover, family switches over to Mars time

AP, LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, California

For one family, an exotic summer getaway means living on Mars.

Since the landing of NASA’s newest Mars rover, flight director David Oh’s family has taken the unusual step of tagging along as he leaves Earth time behind and syncs his body clock with the Red Planet.

Every mission to Mars, a small army of scientists and engineers reports to duty on “Mars time” for the first three months, but it is almost unheard of for an entire family to flip their orderly lives upside down, shifting to what amounts to a time zone change a day.

Intrigued about abiding by extraterrestrial time, Oh’s wife, Bryn, could not pass up the chance to take their kids — 13-year-old Braden, 10-year-old Ashlyn and eight-year-old Devyn — on a Martian adventure from their home near the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the Curiosity rover was built.

“We all feel a little sleepy, a little jet-lagged all day long, but everyone is doing great,” Bryn Oh said, two weeks into the experiment.

Days on Mars last a tad longer. Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours — the definition of a day. Neighboring planet Mars by contrast spins more lazily. Days there — known as sols — last 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than on Earth. The difference may not seem like much each day, but it adds up.

To stay in lockstep, nearly 800 people on the US$2.5 billion project have surrendered to the Martian cycle of light and dark. In the simplest sense, each day slides forward 40 minutes. That results in wacky work, sleep and eating schedules. Many say it feels like perpetual jet lag.

The Oh family broke in slowly. A sign on their front door warns: “On Mars Time: Flight Director Asleep. Come Back Later.”

Days before Curiosity’s Aug. 5 touchdown, the children stayed up until 11:30pm and slept in until 10am. In the beginning, it was not much different from a typical day on summer vacation. As the days wore on, they stayed up later and later, waking up in the afternoon and evening.

One day last week, the family ate a 3pm breakfast, 8pm lunch, 2:30am, dinner and 5am dessert before heading off to bed.

To sleep when the sun is out, their bedroom windows are covered with aluminum foil or cloth to keep out any sliver of light. In the hallway, a handmade calendar keeps track of the days and schedules are written on an oversized mirror. A digital clock in the master bedroom is set to Mars time.

Bryn Oh keeps a meticulous spreadsheet updated with her husband’s work hours and the family’s activities. They wear a wireless device that monitors their steps, calories burned and sleep patterns.

When David Oh tells co-workers on Mars time and friends on Earth time about the switch: “Some of them think it’s really cool to have the kids along. Some who worked on other Mars missions have said, ‘You’re crazy.”’

Being night owls has its perks: Braden, Ashlyn and Devyn saw their first shooting star. The family went on night hikes in the hills around the neighborhood. They had a late dinner in Hollywood and gawked at street performers on the Walk of Fame with other tourists. They saw a midnight screening of a zombie film and then went bowling.

One night, Bryn Oh took the children biking in an empty parking lot. The youngest shed his training wheels and for the first time, pedaled around.

Of the three, Ashlyn has the most difficulty sticking to the Mars rhythm. She tends to wake up too early and balks at naps.

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