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Moon Time: Unraveling the Lunar Clock Debate and the Forgotten Lunar Wristwatch

A prototype of a lunar wristwatch made by Helbros. (Image credit: NASA)
A prototype of a lunar wristwatch made by Helbros. (Image credit: NASA)

The concept of timekeeping on the moon has long been a topic of discussion among scientists and space enthusiasts. With the increasing interest in lunar exploration and the anticipated rise in moon missions, the need for a standardized lunar time zone has become apparent. In a recent gathering of space organizations in the Netherlands, it was unanimously agreed that a common lunar reference time should be established to facilitate communication and coordination between future lunar missions.

Interestingly, the idea of lunar timekeeping is not a new one. Over half a century ago, Dr. Kenneth L. Franklin, a renowned American astronomer, proposed a methodology for telling time on the moon. He even collaborated with a watch company, Helbros Watches Inc., to develop a unique lunar wristwatch that displayed time in "lunations." Despite the initial enthusiasm surrounding the watch, both the concept and the company gradually faded from public consciousness.

The revival of the lunar timekeeping debate and the intriguing history of Dr. Franklin's lunar wristwatch shed light on the complexities of time measurement beyond Earth's boundaries.

The Need for a Lunar Timekeeping System

The recent gathering of space organizations emphasized the need for a standardized lunar timekeeping system to support the upcoming wave of lunar exploration. With multiple countries and space agencies planning missions to the moon in the coming years, a common reference time becomes essential for coordinating activities and facilitating communication between different missions. While previous lunar missions relied on Earth's time zones for synchronization, this approach is no longer feasible as more missions from various countries are planned.

The proposal to establish a lunar time zone aligns with Dr. Kenneth L. Franklin's vision from over five decades ago. In 1970, during the Apollo lunar landing program, Dr. Franklin anticipated the need for a time system based on the rotation of the moon. He recognized that future lunar bases would require a timekeeping system that corresponded to the position of the sun on the moon.

Dr. Franklin's Contributions to Lunar Timekeeping

Dr. Kenneth L. Franklin was a prominent astronomer who served as the chief scientist at New York's Hayden Planetarium from 1956 to 1984. In addition to his significant contributions to the field of astronomy, Dr. Franklin was involved in various media and consulting roles. He authored numerous technical papers, served as a consultant for reputable publications and media outlets, and even wrote astronomy articles for the World Book Encyclopedia.

In 1970, Dr. Franklin announced his proposal for lunar timekeeping at a news conference held at the Overseas Press Club in New York. He suggested a time system based on the rotation of the moon, which would provide a reference for future lunar bases. His vision closely mirrored the recent consensus reached by space organizations, highlighting the enduring relevance of his ideas.

The Helbros Lunar Wristwatch

At the same news conference in 1970, a prototype of a lunar wristwatch was unveiled, demonstrating the practical implementation of Dr. Franklin's mathematical calculations. The watch was developed by Ross C. Kaskel, the technical director at Helbros Watches Inc., a company founded in 1913.

The Helbros lunar wristwatch was unique in its design and functionality. It was based on the lunar synodic month, the time it takes for the moon to complete one orbit around the Earth. Dr. Franklin divided the lunation into units called "lunes," each lasting close to one Earth day. These lunes were further divided into "lunours," similar to Earth hours, and subdivided into "centilunours" and "millilunours." The watch face displayed time in these lunar units rather than minutes and seconds, providing a novel way to tell time on the moon.

In addition to its distinctive timekeeping features, the Helbros lunar wristwatch also incorporated elements of lunar phases. Instead of displaying the day of the month, the watch indicated the number of lunes, with the new moon corresponding to zero lune and the full moon at 15 lunes. The hands of the watch rotated slightly faster than those of an Earth watch to account for the shorter duration of a lunar synodic month.

The unveiling of the Helbros lunar wristwatch generated considerable interest and excitement. To further promote the watch, Helbros arranged for the correct "moon time" to be broadcasted four times a day on 549 radio affiliates of the American Broadcasting Company. A prototype of the watch was displayed at the Hayden Planetarium alongside a letter of appreciation from then-President Richard Nixon, who received his own moon watch as a gift.

Unfortunately, despite the initial buzz surrounding the watch, interest eventually waned, and so did Helbros as a company. The exact number of lunar wristwatches produced and distributed remains unknown, and the whereabouts of the prototype are now uncertain. Helbros went through several changes, including being acquired by Elgin Industries before becoming an independent company once again. However, it eventually went into a state of suspension and its trademark was later acquired by Jules Jurgensen, another renowned vintage watch brand.

The Legacy and Future of Lunar Timekeeping

While the Helbros lunar wristwatch may not have gained widespread popularity or commercial success, its historical significance remains. Dr. Kenneth L. Franklin's foresight in proposing a lunar timekeeping system, coupled with the practical implementation by Helbros, serves as a testament to the ingenuity and forward thinking of scientists and watchmakers alike.

The recent discussions among space organizations regarding the establishment of a lunar time zone indicate that Dr. Franklin's ideas are still relevant in the modern era of space exploration. As more nations and space agencies plan missions to the moon, the need for a standardized timekeeping system becomes increasingly apparent. Coordinating activities and ensuring effective communication between missions will be crucial for the success of future lunar endeavors.

Furthermore, Dr. Franklin's suggestion to divide the moon into local lunar time zones, similar to Earth's Standard Time Zones, provides a framework for practical implementation. This approach would enable precise coordination of activities across different lunar bases and simplify communication protocols among mission teams.

Looking ahead, the advancements in technology and the renewed interest in lunar exploration present an opportunity to revisit the concept of lunar timekeeping. As new missions are planned and executed, the establishment of a common lunar reference time can enhance efficiency, safety, and collaboration in space exploration.

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