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NASA Creating a Standard Time for the Moon

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Question : Explain the concept of Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC) proposed by NASA and its significance in standardizing timekeeping for space activities between Earth and the Moon. Discuss the key features and objectives of LTC in aligning with Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

Why in News ?

  • The White House directed NASA to establish a Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC) to standardize timekeeping for space activities between Earth and the Moon (cislunar space).

What is Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC)?

  • LTC will be the standard time for cislunar operations, aligned with Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) used on Earth.
  • NASA will collaborate with the 39 signatories of the Artemis Accords to develop LTC.
  • Deadline: December 31, 2026 for NASA and partners to deliver an LTC implementation strategy.

Key Points of Celestial Time Standardization

  • Standardize timekeeping for celestial bodies, starting with the Moon and cislunar space.
  • Four key features of a time standard for the Moon:
    • Traceability to UTC: Similar to Terrestrial Time (TAI + 32.184 seconds) on Earth, LTC may be set by lunar clocks.
      • LTC can directly use UTC offsets to maintain local time and UTC within tolerance limits.
    • Scalability: Applicable beyond Earth-Moon system. Conversion to UTC will be possible using the approach for setting LTC. This can be extended to other space environments (e.g., Mars).
    • Accuracy: Provides a reference time standard for users in cislunar space for precise navigation and scientific activities. Enables precise synchronization between space assets.
    • Resilience: The reference time (LTC) should function independently even if contact with Earth is lost.

Did You Know?

  • UTC (formulated in 1960s) accommodates the difference between solar time and atomic time.
    • Maintained within 0.9 seconds of solar time and an exact number of seconds of International Atomic Time (TAI).
  • Currently, lunar missions use the time of the operating country, while the International Space Station (ISS) uses UTC.
  • A standardized time system for space and the Moon is currently not followed.

Why is Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC) Needed?

Current Challenges:

  • UTC not suitable for Moon: Earth’s 24-hour day based on rotation doesn’t apply to the Moon (rotates every 29.5 Earth days).
  • Need for permanent lunar presence: Existing missions were short-term visits. Establishing a permanent human presence requires LTC.
  • Dedicated lunar navigation system (GNSS): Planned by 2030, similar to GPS, needs LTC for operation.
  • Communication and coordination: Multiple space agencies and future commercial activities require a common time reference.

Technical Challenges of LTC:

  • Moon’s gravity: Weaker pull makes clocks on the Moon run faster than on Earth (special relativity theory).
  • Lunar surface variations: Clock speed can vary depending on location due to Moon’s rotation.

Global Efforts:

  • November 2022: Global space agencies and academic bodies discussed the need for unified lunar time at an ESA meeting (Netherlands).
  • 2023: European Space Agency’s (ESA) ‘Moonlight’ project for lunar navigation highlighted the need for a single lunar time zone.
  • Growing Lunar Ambitions:
    • China: Astronauts on the Moon by 2030.
    • India: Lunar landing by 2040 (only country to land near the south pole).
    • Japan: Fifth country to land on the Moon (January 2023).

Future Outlook:

  • September 2025: Artemis mission – 4-member crew to fly around the Moon (preparation for landing).
  • Standardization is Critical: Consistent time definition is essential for:
    • Successful space situational awareness.
    • Navigation.
    • Communication.
    • Scientific missions.

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/why-is-nasa-allotting-a-standard-time-for-the-moon/article68131522.ece

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