U.S. Jeweler creates ‘Mars time’ watch for JPL

What time is it on Mars?

That’s an important question for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars team, overseeing the U.S. Spirit and Opportunity missions, and it’s been successfully answered by a California jeweler/watchmaker.

Scores of engineers and scientists have to constantly work on “Mars time”—where days are 39 minutes longer than on Earth (an extra 1.65 minutes per hour)—as they direct the activities of robotic rovers 100 million miles away on the red planet. But it isn’t easy to constantly translate Earth time to Mars time, which even affects when team members arrive at and leave work.

To solve the problem, JPL Mars team engineers Julie Townsend and Scott Doudrick last year contacted several watchmakers, including some major ones. Most said such an adaptation wasn’t possible with mechanical watches. One even required a sizeable order of quartz watches before trying to do it. (The JPL Mars Team needed only about a few dozen watches.)

In October, the engineers approached Garo Anserlian, co-owner of Executive Jewelers, in Montrose, Calif., whose customers include some JPL staff people. “They asked me if I could make a watch to work on Mars time,” the master watchmaker told JCK. Unsure, Anserlian sought the advice of some fellow members of the North American Watch and Clock Collectors Association. “They told me it was impossible,” he says. “But I like a challenge, so I took it.”

Over the next couple months, after normal business hours, Anserlian—sometimes assisted by his staff—toyed with the problem, taking apart, testing, modifying, and reassembling many mechanical watches. Eventually, the project cost him about $1,000 of his own money. Townsend and Doudrick visited weekly to check progress and remind him how important the watches would be to the team’s interplanetary mission.

By mid-December Anserlian had the solution: By readjusting the gearing system and adding small weights to the balance, a 21-jeweled self-winding mechanical watch movement could be slowed it to 3,699 Earth seconds per Martian hour. The final touch was cosmetic—a watch face resembling the planet Mars.

On Jan. 2, Anserlian’s store was packed with JPL Mars team members. “You should have seen it,” Anserlian told JCK. “The store was full of scientists from all over the country and the world, all here to pick up their watches.”

A couple days later, watching the landing of Spirit on Mars had special poignancy for him. “As I watched the scientists on TV jumping up with joy, I saw my watch on a couple of them. It gave me happiness and made me proud as an Armenian-American to have developed something useful for my country.”

Anserlian and his staff—between daily business and giving interviews to print, radio, and TV journalists who have learned of his achievement—now are adapting Asian-made mechanical watches at a rate of a couple dozen a day for the entire JPL Mars mission team (about 125 watches in all). He plans a limited edition of 1,000 watches (including those for JPL), complete with Mars faces and authenticating certificates, for sale to the public at $225 to $500 retail. He’s also considering adapting his “Mars time” idea to alarm clocks, wall clocks, even pocket watches.

Anserlian already offers the watches on his Web site (www.executivejewelers.com) and is “getting e-mail offers from here and from overseas, from England, from Germany”—as well as offers from some watch companies who now see it’s possible to make a “Mars time” watch and want to take over the project. But having solved the problem with old-fashioned watchmaking know-how and persistence, Anserlian wants to enjoy his interplanetary achievement himself, for a while.