Why the moon could have its own time zone — and 4 more space stories you may have missed this week

SpaceX’s first manned mission of the year, Venus and Jupiter’s “nighttime kiss,” a new take on Jules Verne's space gun and more.

Welcome to This Week in Outer Space, where you’ll find a roundup of the best space coverage from Yahoo News and our partners from the past week or so. Last week, we covered black holes, budget space tourism and a small but significant glimmer of hope in U.S.-Russia relations. This week, we’ve got a victory lap from SpaceX, some good news about killer asteroids and planetary activity that probably has some astrological significance. But first, the incredibly complicated quest for a lunar standard time zone.

Now is the time for moon time

With dozens of lunar missions on the horizon, a joint international effort is being formed to standardize how we measure time on the moon. Establishing a special time zone for the moon is much more easily said than done — because knowing when you are has a lot to do with figuring out where you are. Let us explain:

Since 1967, we have measured time on Earth on a global scale using what’s called Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, which is based on super-accurate atomic clocks. UTC stays the same no matter where you are on the planet, but your local time corresponds to the sun, with noon always being when it’s directly overhead.

Now, to avoid absolute chaos in daily life, we use time zones broken up by the hour — but technically speaking, every 101 feet east or west there’s about a 1-second difference in local time. So, if you know exactly what time it is where you are and exactly what time it is in UTC, you can figure out where you are east or west of the international dateline. There’s also a much more complicated way to use local time to determine your position north or south of the equator, and those two measurements are critical for making things like navigation and communication systems operate with any kind of reliability.

So what does any of that have to do with space travel? Currently, the time on the moon is based on the local time at mission control for any individual spacecraft. So, say there’s a rover from Cape Canaveral. If it’s 7 a.m. in Florida, it’s 7 a.m. on the moon, no matter where the rover actually is. However, let’s say the rover from Cape Canaveral crossed paths with a lander from Wenchang, China. Even though they were right next to each other, it would be 7 a.m. for the rover and 8 p.m. for the lander.

Right now, that’s not really a big problem, as there just isn’t that much stuff happening on the moon for it to matter. But as countries and private companies expand moon missions in the coming decades, the European Space Agency believes that a “common lunar reference time” will become pivotal in maintaining order.

The bad news is there isn’t a clear solution yet. Atomic clocks, the kind we use to establish UTC on Earth, run ever so slightly faster on the moon, due to its lower gravity, and a more traditional solar model presents another set of problems. The time between one lunar high noon and the next is about 708.7 hours, and that doesn’t factor neatly into minutes and seconds.

Luckily, at least for the foreseeable future, this really isn’t going to have a major impact on the vast majority of earthlings — and there are literal rocket scientists working on the solution.

SpaceX really came out swinging this week

Apparently unaffected by some of Elon Musk’s more chaotic ventures, SpaceX has run like clockwork as of late — and this week, the hits just kept on coming. Although it had to call off a launch in partnership with NASA just minutes before liftoff on Monday, the private space company quickly regrouped and sent its first manned mission of the year into orbit on Thursday. The Crew-6 ferried four astronauts, including the first space traveler from the Arab world, Sultan Al Neyadi, to the International Space Station, where they’ll replace a team from Crew-5.

While all of that was going on, SpaceX also managed to deploy the first set of second-generation Starlink internet satellites into orbit on Monday, then went right back to the launchpad to do it again on Friday afternoon.

So what’s next for SpaceX? You guessed it: more launches.

Good news: We might actually be able to deflect killer asteroids

As you may recall, back in September, NASA crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if it could nudge it onto a different course. Early data proved promising, but now that the results for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission have been more scientifically analyzed, we can say with some confidence that, yeah, it works. The “kinetic impactors” did indeed make a significant change to the asteroid’s trajectory.

Now, there are still a lot of variables when it comes to whether or not this would work in a specific real-life scenario with a planet-killer space rock hurtling toward Earth — but I, for one, am going to sleep just a little bit better with one less existential threat to worry about.

Venus and Jupiter got cozy

On Wednesday and Thursday, Venus and Jupiter appeared to nearly converge in the night sky. Obviously, those two celestial bodies are hundreds of millions of miles apart, and it just looked from our perspective that they partook in what Oregon Public Radio hilariously referred to as a “nighttime kiss.” Due to the relatively flat alignments of orbits in our solar system, perceived planetary convergences are pretty common. However, apart from any astrological implications, they don’t really have any scientific significance other than looking really cool.

SpinLaunch wants to hurl satellites into orbit

When it comes to escaping Earth’s gravity, our options are limited: Rocket fuel is expensive, also dangerous, and balloons will only get you so far. But what if there was another way? Well, a company based in Sunnyvale, Calif., thinks it might have the answer.

The SpinLaunch prototype includes a giant wheel that looks like a flat can that used to house film tape, mounted with a chimney pointing to the sky.
The SpinLaunch prototype. (Business Wire/AP)

SpinLaunch has built a one-third scale proof of concept of what essentially amounts to a very high-tech catapult to hurl objects into space. As you might infer from the name, the device rapidly spins cargo in a vacuum chamber to build up kinetic energy, before letting go at a precise moment to launch the payload flying up into the sky. Tests have attracted attention and investment from the likes of NASA and Airbus, and while the idea of shooting objects into space sans rocket isn’t exactly new, this is the first time it’s proven viable outside of science fiction.