Time to Moon: Establishing a Lunar Time System for Future Missions

Insight provided by David Chandler Senior Product Marketing Manager of Microchip Technology's frequency and time systems business unit

As we set our sights on returning to the Moon and establishing a more permanent human presence, a critical yet often overlooked challenge emerges: how do we keep time on the lunar surface? The United States is taking a proactive step to establish a universal standard for lunar timekeeping. In April, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a directive to NASA, mandating a unified time standard for the Moon and other celestial bodies. This effort, dubbed Coordinated Lunar Time (CLT), aims to set international norms in space, which is crucial for ensuring coherent and reliable operations as lunar activities intensify.

This move represents the need for an agreed-upon time standard amid the burgeoning lunar race among nations and private enterprises.

Kevin Coggins, NASA’s space communications and navigation chief, highlighted the practical implications of this directive. “The same clock that we have on Earth would move at a different rate on the moon.” This difference, primarily due to varying gravitational forces, necessitates a unique timekeeping system to support the precision required for lunar spacecraft and satellite missions.

We heard from David Chandler, Senior Product Marketing Manager of Microchip Technology’s frequency and time systems business unit, about the intricate and essential topic of lunar timekeeping and its implications for future moon missions.

The Importance of Precision in Lunar Timekeeping

On Earth, time synchronization is crucial for operations ranging from GPS navigation to telecommunications. However, the Moon presents unique challenges due to its distinct environmental conditions and gravitational effects. According to Chandler, “The acceleration of time on the Moon due to gravity relative to sea level is about 700 times greater, roughly 56 microseconds per day.” While this seems insignificant, this difference can lead to significant errors in navigation and communication—problems that were inconsequential during the Apollo missions but will become critical as we deploy more technology and personnel to the Moon.

To address these challenges, we need to establish a lunar-based ‘source of truth,’ as Chandler refers to it, for timekeeping. This shift is essential for ensuring accurate synchronization between the Moon and Earth, preventing potential mishaps in communication and navigation as lunar operations become more complex.

Challenges in Establishing Lunar Time

Setting up a time system on the Moon involves technical and conceptual hurdles. From a technological perspective, lunar timekeeping devices must be able to withstand radiation and optimized in size, weight, and power to be viable for lunar deployment. Conceptually, the definition of a lunar day poses a complex challenge. Should it align with Earth days to suit human circadian rhythms, or should it reflect the solar time on the Moon, which spans approximately 29.5 Earth days?

Chandler highlights these decisions’ geopolitical and operational implications, noting that “the scientific community agreeing to answers to these questions” might be more challenging than the mathematical and technological aspects of lunar timekeeping.

Benefits for Future Lunar Missions

Establishing a precise lunar time system is more than just a technological achievement; it’s the foundation for the future of lunar exploration and habitation. A reliable time reference will enhance lunar navigation and mapping capabilities.

“Precise time will enable us to create better lunar surface maps, which in turn will allow for better navigation,” said Chandler. This precision is vital for navigation and the synchronization of activities on the lunar surface, ranging from construction and mining to potential rescue operations. As lunar missions become more sophisticated and habitats more complex, the accurate timing provided by such a system will be essential for managing these activities efficiently and safely.

The Role of International Collaboration

The need for collaboration when it comes to a lunar time system is of the utmost importance. Given moon missions’ high costs and complex logistics, international cooperation is essential for sharing resources, knowledge, and technology. Chandler emphasizes the necessity of a unified lunar time system to prevent complications that might arise from multiple nations operating on different time standards. This unified approach is crucial for operational efficiency and mitigating the potential for territorial disputes on the Moon’s limited surface area. As the lunar frontier expands, a shared time standard could serve as a foundation for international treaties and agreements, fostering a cooperative environment rather than a competitive one.

Technological and Astronomical Impacts

While the development of a lunar timekeeping system leverages existing technologies, its implementation on the Moon requires innovative adaptations. These include enhancing the radiation hardening of devices and reducing their size and power consumption to make them viable for lunar deployment.

By establishing a network of telescopes on the Moon, synchronized by precise lunar time, we can achieve unprecedented clarity and depth observations. This setup would take advantage of the Moon’s stable, unobstructed view of the cosmos, free from Earth’s atmospheric and electronic noises, potentially leading to breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe. The implications for cosmology and astrophysics are profound, as such advancements could unlock answers to fundamental questions about the nature of space and time itself.


As humanity prepares for its next giant leap, creating a reliable and accurate lunar timekeeping system represents a foundational step in lunar exploration and habitation. The challenges are significant, but the potential benefits—for navigation, international collaboration, and astronomical research—are profound. With strategic planning and international cooperation, the establishment of lunar time could well be a pivotal element in the success of future lunar missions.

Insights provided by David Chandler, Senior Product Marketing Manager of Microchip Technology’s frequency and time systems business unit.


For more information about the technology currently in place and being worked on, watch the video:

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