New Discoveries Reveal How Much Faster Time Ticks on the Moon

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on July 9, 2024 17:45
Time Ticks Faster on the Moon: What It Means for Future Missions

Recent studies have provided a detailed understanding of how time passes differently on the Moon compared to Earth, a crucial discovery for future lunar missions.

This difference in the passage of time, although small, has significant implications for navigation, communication, and operations on the Moon.

Understanding Time Dilation on the Moon

Since astronauts last visited the lunar surface 52 years ago, time on the Moon has been ticking faster relative to Earth. According to a new study by NASA scientists, time on the Moon stretches ahead by approximately 57 millionths (0.0000575) of a second per day compared to Earth.

Over a long duration, this discrepancy accumulates; for example, after 274 years, a person on the Moon would age 5.75 seconds more than someone on Earth. Slava Turyshev, a physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, led the study and highlighted the importance of these calculations: "Somebody needed to sit down and work out the maths."

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This phenomenon is a result of Einstein's general theory of relativity, which explains how gravity can influence the passage of time. The Moon's weaker gravitational pull, being one-sixth that of Earth's, allows time to pass slightly faster there. With the upcoming Artemis missions aiming to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon, understanding and accounting for this time dilation is crucial.


Cheryl Gramling, a navigation systems engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, emphasized the need for precision: "If you're trying to navigate or land on the Moon, and avoid dangerous areas, then that precision matters."

Implications for Future Lunar Missions

The practical applications of this knowledge are significant for future lunar missions. Accurate timing is essential for navigation, communication, and coordination of activities on the Moon. NASA and other US agencies are currently working on establishing a unified time reference system for the Moon, a task that has become more urgent with plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2026. "The establishment of a standardized lunar time is essential for synchronizing activities and operations on the Moon," states a new paper posted on the pre-print server arXiv.

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The calculations performed by Turyshev and his team involved comparing the relative speeds of time on Earth, the Moon, and the Solar System's barycenter, the common center of mass around which the Sun, planets, and their satellites orbit. This comprehensive approach helps ensure that future missions can coordinate effectively, avoiding conflicts and enhancing collaboration. Arati Prabhakar, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, highlighted the importance of this work: "Precision applications such as spacecraft docking or landing will require greater accuracy than current methods allow."

Establishing Coordinated Lunar Time

The need for a coordinated lunar time system is further underscored by the challenges posed by the Moon's 29.5 Earth days-long days. Current missions use the time zone of the craft's country of origin, which is not sustainable for long-term operations involving multiple landers, rovers, and orbiters.

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A common time reference will facilitate reliable data transmission and reception, ensuring that autonomous systems can operate seamlessly. The report explains, "With missions involving multiple landers, rovers, and orbiters, having a common time reference ensures that all units can coordinate effectively, avoiding conflicts and enhancing collaboration."

The findings from these studies will need to be corroborated by international bodies such as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures and the International Astronomical Union, which plan to meet in August to discuss the final definition of lunar time. As humanity prepares to establish bases on the Moon and Mars, this research provides a foundation for creating a standardized time system that will support the intricate operations required for sustained lunar exploration.

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The precise calculation of time dilation on the Moon is a critical step in preparing for future lunar missions. By establishing a coordinated lunar time system, NASA and other space agencies can ensure the success of their missions, enabling precise navigation, communication, and collaboration on the lunar surface.

As Turyshev aptly noted, "Failing to account for the discrepancy between a transmitter clock on the Earth and how it is perceived by a receiver on the Moon will result in a ranging error." This research not only advances our understanding of time dilation but also highlights the importance of meticulous planning and coordination in space exploration.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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