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Solar discrepancies : Mars exploration and the curious problem of inter-planetary time

  • Author(s): Mirmalek, Zara Lenora
  • et al.
Abstract

The inter-planetary work system for the NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) mission entailed coordinating work between two corporally diverse workgroups, human beings and solar-powered robots, and between two planets with asynchronous axial rotations. The rotation of Mars takes approximately 24 hours and 40 minutes while for Earth the duration is 24 hours, a differential that was synchronized on Earth by setting a clock forward forty minutes every day. The hours of the day during which the solar-powered rovers were operational constituted the central consideration in the relationship between time and work around which the schedule of MER science operations were organized. And, the operational hours for the rovers were precarious for at least two reasons: on the one hand, the possibility of a sudden and inexplicable malfunction was always present; on the other, the rovers were powered by solar-charged batteries that could simply (and would eventually) fail. Thus, the timetable for the inter- planetary work system was scheduled according to the daily cycle of the sun on Mars and a version of clock time called Mars time was used to keep track of the movement of the sun on Mars. While the MER mission was a success, it does not necessarily follow that all aspects of mission operations were successful. One of the central problems that plagued the organization of mission operations was precisely this construct called "Mars time" even while it appeared that the use of Mars time was unproblematic and central to the success of the mission. In this dissertation, Zara Mirmalek looks at the construction of Mars time as a tool and as a social process. Of particular interest are the consequences of certain (ostensibly foundational) assumptions about the relationship between clock time and the conduct of work that contributed to making the relationship between Mars time and work on Earth appear operational. Drawing on specific examples of breakdowns of Mars time as a support technology and of the technologies supporting Mars time, Mirmalek explores some of the effects that follow from failing to recognize time as a socio-cultural construction that emerges, fundamentally, in and through a physical relationship between the environment and the human body. In this investigation of Mars time as a phenomenon comprised of several contradictory logics, Mirmalek takes into account several aspects of the social, technical, and cultural processes constituting the relationship between time and work at NASA and specifically on the MER mission

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