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 must 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 millions of miles away on the Red Planet. But it isn’t easy for them to work in Mars time, not only because of that planet’s longer days but also because Mars rotates more slowly than Earth, pushing timetables forward a little bit more each day. With three teams for each rover working three shifts over a 24-hour, 40-minute Mars day, “It makes for a confusing work schedule here,” says JPL systems engineer Julie Townsend. “Thinking in Mars time isn’t something you learn to do habitually.”
The problem became apparent last year when JPL engineers practiced operating rovers according to Mars time. “The elegant solution,” as Townsend put it, would be a wristwatch adapted to run on Mars time. However, it was difficult finding a vendor to do so. For quartz watches, a special “Mars Time” chip would have to be developed, and watch firms would do so only if there was a large order to produce the watches in quantity. But JPL needed only a few dozen, at most. As for mechanical timepieces, watchmakers said the idea wasn’t feasible.
Still, Townsend and fellow engineer Scott Doudrick “decided such a watch would be useful for us personally,” and they were determined to find someone willing to make one. “We wanted someone near JPL, who loves watches and loves tinkering with them,” she says. In October they contacted Garo Anserlian, owner of Executive Jewelers, in Montrose, Calif., whose customers include JPL employees.
“They asked me if I could make a watch to work on Mars time,” the Swiss-trained master watchmaker told JCK . Unsure, Anserlian consulted some fellow watchmakers. “They told me it was impossible,” he says. “But I like a challenge, so I took it.”
Over the next couple of months, Anserlian—sometimes assisted by his staff—worked on the problem, taking apart, testing, modifying, and reassembling mechanical watches from his inventory. Townsend and Doudrick visited weekly to check on his progress.
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 to 3,699 Earth seconds per Martian hour. The final touch was cosmetic—a watch face resembling the Red Planet and inscribed “Mars.”
On Jan. 2, JPL Mars team members crowded Anserlian’s small shop to pick up the first batch of customized watches. “You should have seen it,” Anserlian told JCK. “The store was full of scientists from America and all over the world, all here to pick up their Mars watches.” With Spirit set to land on Mars the next day, “a lot of [JPL] people wanted to have their Mars time watch before it did,” Townsend recalls.
When Spirit landed successfully, “I watched the scientists on TV jumping up with joy, and I saw my watch on a couple of them,” says Anserlian. “It gave me happiness and made me proud as an Armenian-American to have developed something useful for my country.”
Meanwhile, at Mission Control, a project leader rushed over to Townsend right after the landing and told her he needed a Mars watch.
Anserlian and his staff spent much of early 2004 adapting Japanese mechanical watches at a rate of a two or three dozen a day to create enough Mars-time watches for the entire JPL Mars mission team. He also created a limited edition of 1,000 watches, complete with Mars faces and authenticating certificates, which he’s selling to the public at $225 to $500 retail. Anserlian offers the watches on his Web site (www.executive jewelers.com) and has received many domestic and foreign e-mail requests and even offers from a few watch companies who want to take over the project. But having solved the “impossible” problem with old-fashioned watchmaking know-how and persistence, Anserlian wants to enjoy his interplanetary achievement himself for a while.