It’s been 40 days and 40 nights since New Year’s– when we finally kicked 2020 to the curb. And even though every person on this planet shouted “Goodbye and good riddance!” (I know I did) we’ve largely forgotten about it. The hats have been thrown away, the champagne bottles recycled, and the resolutions … well … the resolutions really didn’t stand a chance this year, did they? But not to worry. You can renew those resolutions with a clean slate and a fresh start all this week– because last Sunday was also New Year’s Day – on Mars.
I’ll grant you, unless you’re a NASA scientist, it’s not something you think about, but now that you are, it definitely makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, Mars has a different rotation from Earth and a different orbit around the sun, so our time – 24 hours/365 days – just doesn’t apply. Actually, the Martian day, called a sol (pronunciation still in doubt) is 24 hours, 39 minutes long. (That 43-minute difference is just enough to screw things up.) And it takes Mars 687 days to get all the way around the sun – a Martian year. So, since Mars has four seasons (just like us) a quick pen and paper calculation and you have 12 months (BTW, you can name them anything you want; nobody’s done that yet!) and there’s your Martian calendar.
Of course, none of this really mattered before we started sending our machines to Mars to have a look around. But the minute we did, we discovered we needed a way to keep track of them: Earth time just wasn’t going to do it. For example, right now in the Pacific Time Zone, it’s about 5:30 p.m. and the sun is going down, but on Mars (where the Rover is) that same sun is shining in the middle of the afternoon. So far, so good. But tomorrow (relative to me) Martian time is going to slide backwards 43 minutes, and it’ll do it again the next day, and the next. By this time next month, me and Mars are going to be out of sync by nearly a whole day! Oops! So what NASA did was lengthen the Martian second by (approx.) 1.027. Then they chose the Martian Spring Equinox as Day One of the Martian year. That allowed them to measure and schedule Martian time accurately from that fixed point. (FYI, this is no different from Great Britain setting up Greenwich Mean Time in the 19th century, Pope Gregory XIII rebooting the calendar in 1582, or Julius Caesar naming the 7th month after himself when he was running the show.) Anyway, for some reason (I can’t find out why) NASA decided to backdate Martian time to begin with Year Zero on Earth Year 1955. That makes this Martian Year 36!
Ever since humans dropped out of the trees and looked up into the sky, the Red Planet has captured our imagination. It’s our nearest celestial neighbour. We can see it flickering red with the naked eye. It has mysterious canals, polar ice caps, volcanos and canyons. It’s been part of our literary culture for two centuries and part of our scientific world for nearly as long. So, go ahead and celebrate the hell out of this Martian New Year — cuz the next one isn’t going to happen until December 26th 2022!