White House directs NASA to create time standard for the Moon

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The White House on Tuesday directed NASA to establish a unified standard of time for the Moon and other celestial bodies, as the United States aims to establish international standards in space amid a growing lunar race between nations and private companies.

The head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) directed the space agency to work with other parts of the US government to develop a plan by the end of 2026, according to a memo seen by Reuters. Called Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC).

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Different gravitational forces on the Moon and other celestial bodies, and potentially other factors, alter the way time appears relative to the way it is observed on Earth. Among other things, LTC will provide a time-keeping benchmark for lunar spacecraft and satellites that require extreme precision for their missions.

“The same clock we have on Earth will run at a different speed on the moon,” Kevin Coggins, NASA's space communications and navigation chief, said in an interview.

OSTP chief Aarti Prabhakar's memo said that for a person on the Moon, the Earth-based clock would appear to lose an average of 58.7 microseconds per Earth-day and would be accompanied by other periodic variations that would shift Moon time from Earth time and Will also reduce.

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Coggins said, “Think of the atomic clocks at the U.S. Naval Observatory (in Washington). They are the heartbeat of the country, synchronizing everything. You'd want to see a heartbeat on the Moon.”

Under its Artemis program, NASA aims to send astronaut missions to the Moon in the coming years and establish a scientific lunar base that could help set the stage for future missions to Mars. Dozens of companies, spacecraft and countries are involved in this effort.

An OSTP official said that without a unified lunar time standard it would be challenging to ensure that data transfer between spacecraft is secure and that communications between Earth, lunar satellites, bases and astronauts are synchronized.

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The official said discrepancies in timing could have led to errors in mapping and determining positions on the moon or in its orbit.

'How disruptive'

“Imagine if the world were not syncing their clocks to the same time – how disruptive it could be and how challenging everyday things would become,” the official said.

On Earth, most clocks and time zones are based on Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC. This internationally recognized standard relies on a vast global network of atomic clocks located at various locations around the world. They measure changes in the position of the atoms and produce an average that ultimately creates an accurate time.

According to the OSTP official, this may require the deployment of atomic clocks on the lunar surface.

The official also said that as commercial activities expand to the Moon, a unified time standard will be necessary to coordinate operations, ensure the reliability of transactions, and manage the logistics of lunar commerce.

NASA said in January that it planned to land its first astronauts on the Moon in September 2026, following the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, with a mission to fly four astronauts around the Moon and back. Scheduled for September 2025.

While the United States is the only country to have sent astronauts to the Moon, others have lunar ambitions. Countries have their eyes on potential mineral resources on the Moon, and lunar bases could help support future crewed missions to Mars and elsewhere.

China said last year that it aimed to send its first astronaut to the Moon by 2030. In January, Japan became the fifth country to send a spacecraft to the Moon. India last year became the first country to land a spacecraft near the uncharted moon's south pole, and has announced plans to send an astronaut to the moon by 2040.

“U.S. leadership in defining an appropriate standard – one that achieves the accuracy and flexibility required for operations in challenging lunar environments – will benefit all spacefaring nations,” the OSTP memo said.

Defining how to implement coordinated lunar time would require international agreements, the memo said, through “existing standards bodies” and among the 36 countries that have signed an agreement called the Artemis Accords. , including how countries operate in space and on the Moon. China and Russia, America's two main rivals in space, have not signed the Artemis agreement.

The OSTP official said that Coordinated Universal Time may affect the way Coordinated Lunar Time is implemented. The International Telecommunication Union of the United Nations defines Coordinated Universal Time as an international standard.

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