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Making Martian Time
Making Martian Time
8 Jan 2004
(Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Watchmaker With Time to Lose
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
January 08, 2004

They said it couldn't be done. But in the sleepy little town of Montrose, California, nestled in the hills surrounding JPL, master watchmaker Garo Anserlian of Executive Jewelers is perfecting a timepiece for hundreds of Earthlings bound to Mars' irregular day. Past the glass cases of what looks like an ordinary jewelry store is a workshop where watches are losing 39 minutes a day.

Rover controllers have to monitor Spirit (and soon, Opportunity) all the time; this doesn't just mean 24 hours a day " it means 24 hours, 39 minutes a day. The martian day is longer than Earth's, but this minimal variance can amount to physical and mental fatigue. Every day, team members are reporting to work 39 minutes later than the previous day.

"Everything on this mission is based on local solar time on Mars," said Julie Townsend, Mars Exploration Rover avionics systems engineer. "From home, during the mission practice tests, it was very difficult to constantly translate Earth time to Mars time."

Townsend and her co-worker Scott Doudrick, a systems engineer on the project, set out to find a solution for this otherwordly problem. The pair began to ask watchmakers to tackle the challenge but each one turned them away, saying that it couldn't be done unless they placed a large order (10,000 plus) for quartz-controlled watches; they insisted that attempting to convert mechanical watches was not possible.

A neighborhood store located on a strip of distinct specialty shops "not a chain store in sight " Garo's workshop is far from a cookie-cutter assembly line. Tables covered with disassembled watches and clocks seem to mirror the intent watchmaker's mind; taking things apart and fixing them is, for him, second nature.

"When I do something I like to know the maximum about it," he stressed. "This is not just a hobby, it is my career."

A man who found his passion at the age of eight, an underling to his father, now guides his own young apprentice, nine-year-old son, David. Clearly enamored of his father, David relayed his own novice clock-making prowess and declared that he would one day take over the store. When he does inherit the business, he will have benefited from his father's finely honed skills, acquired under master watch and clockmakers in Switzerland and Germany.

Garo acknowledged that the Mars watch request is the strangest he has ever received. It took him about two months to design, fine-tune and streamline the process that would keep the watch on Mars time.

"Since I was a young child I've put my heart into making very precise time pieces, now I was being asked to create a watch that was slow on purpose " it was going to be a challenge if it was even possible," Garo said. "I spent more than $1,000 trying to figure this out " damaging watches, trying different parts, just searching for a way."

Watchmaking is a careful process that involves very small parts and wheels. In order to make the watches useful to the Mars Exploration Rover team, Garo had to physically attach additional specific lead weights thus precisely altering the movement of the wheels and hands on certain existing famous-maker wristwatches. Working on the 21-jeweled self-winding mechanical wristwatches was sometimes frustrating.

"At one point my helpers and I looked at each other and said "'forget it, we're wasting time and money.'" But Townsend and Doudrick wouldn't let him quit. The two came by his shop every week, assuring him that his highly anticipated watches would be a valuable asset to the team.

Garo finished Doudrick's watch first and after initial testing, discovered that it was off by no more than ten seconds in 24 hours Earth time " an amazingly accurate feat for an entirely mechanical watch. Now, when the store is fully staffed, the experts can retrofit and thus create about ten watches per day. After he accommodates all rover team members who wish to own a custom-made Mars watch, he will market his patented rarity to the public.

Garo watched with million of others as mission control described Spirit's near-perfect landing. But his connection to the mission was personal.

"I felt proud; I got goosebumps," he said. "I saw that some of them had two watches on and I thought, one of them was mine! I was proud as an American that it landed and secondly that my watches will be used."

Used, indeed, by a team of scientists and engineers who looked to a truly old world craft for a solution to a very modern problem. And like the rover team, that faced countless challenges and criticism, Garo gets to say, "I told you so" to those who said it couldn't be done.

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Last Updated: 20 Oct 2004