Adapting to a Martian day

Since the beginning of August, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has been exploring the Red Planet and learning as much as it can about the terrain.

The mission control team back on Earth has also learned what it may be like on Mars by trying to live and work on a Martian day, which is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. 

This ‘day’ length causes havoc with the internal 24-hour body clock. Fortunately, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have developed and tested a fatigue management program which seems to be successful at controlling this space-age jetlag.

Indeed, mission controllers investigating the Martian landscape are required to communicate with the rover on Martian time. This unusual schedule poses a significant challenge as our internal body clock has evolved to expect a 24-hour light-dark, not a 24.65 h ‘day’, making it difficult to sleep, wake and work.

”Our study, which was conducted during the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, investigated the effectiveness of a pilot program to educate the mission personnel on how to reset their body clocks more quickly and how to improve their sleep, alertness and performance,” explained Dr. Steven W. Lockley, a neuroscientist at BWH.

The research team studied 19 scientific and technical personnel supporting the Phoenix Lander mission for more than 11 weeks. The participants were assessed using a sleep/work diary, continuous wrist actigraphy, and regular performance tests. 

A subset of the study participants were also given portable blue-light light boxes to place at their workstations to help reset their internal body clocks and improve their performance.

Ultimately, the researchers determined that most of the participants were capable of synchronizing themselves to a Martian day schedule.

“While adapting the human sleep-wake and performance cycle to a 24.65 hour day is a substantial challenge, our study has provided the foundation to develop comprehensive fatigue management programs for future missions, which may eventually include manned missions to Mars,” said Laura Barger, PhD, an associate physiologist at BWH. 

”Such a program could decrease the risk of fatigue-related mistakes during these high profile and expensive missions.”

The above-mentioned findings may also prove helpful to others working on unusual ‘day-lengths’ such as submariners who have traditionally adhered to an 18-hour day.