Like every new year, 2020 took a while to get started.
Since there are 24 time zones on our fair planet there are actually 24 opportunities to celebrate the start of a new year. In the lower 48 states there are three time zones, and if you include Alaska and Hawaii there are five. That’s a lot of opportunities for parties!
Worldwide, the pacific island nations of Tonga, Samoa and Kiribati are the first ones to ring in the new year, and American Samoa – only a little over 500 miles from Samoa – is the last. The line had to be drawn somewhere, and it makes sense to take political borders and population sizes into account.
In space this all becomes quite meaningless. Our sun is a very average star in a backwater spiral arm of an unremarkable galaxy, and in the grand scheme of things it makes absolutely no difference where one of its planets is. However, there’s also no great cosmic law that prohibits our Earth-centric definitions of years, so we might as well do as we please and be practical about it.
While the northern hemisphere is shivering the planet is actually closest to the sun. The fact that it’s cold out there depends entirely on the Earth’s tilt away from the sun and the amount of daylight we get – the distance makes really no difference overall: it’s still brutally hot in Australia right now, with wildfires running rampant.
Since the time zones and the beginning of the new year are kind of arbitrary, being in space adds another wrinkle to the confusion. The International Space Station (ISS) zips around the Earth 16 times a day – that’s sixteen sunsets and sunrises – there are 16 opportunities to ring in a new year. There are 15 nations participating in the day to day operations of the ISS (with occasional guests from other countries), so just picking a time zone at random doesn’t really work either.
In fact, the ISS operates on the Greenwich Mean (GMT) or Coordinated Universal Standard (UTC) Time Zone. The time zone for the Greenwich Observatory in London, UK, seems a logical choice, since that’s also where the count for the geographical longitudes starts.
And so the folks on the ISS toasted each other for 2020 when it was just 7pm here in good old Milly.
Of course, the astronauts didn’t get to do the champagne and confetti thing. First off, if you toss confetti in Earth orbit, it just keeps floating around and you could inhale it, or it could get stuck in computer circuitry and short stuff out, so there’s a strict No Confetti policy in space. And champagne doesn’t really work up there – the little bubbles literally don’t know which way is up and so they stay in the liquid. And once in your stomach, they stay there, too, for the same reason, and that gets really uncomfortable in short order, since burping isn’t really easy either.
But hey – who needs champagne for a good New Year’s toast anyway? A drink pouch with water will do just as well, so next time you’re the designated driver for a party, remember you can make like an astronaut and stick with plain water!
Not that there’s a lot of time for quaint Earth traditions when you’re a super-busy astronaut on the ISS, but they do get to celebrate a little bit up there as well: there are special meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah, and special hats and socks have been sighted during those albeit brief festive occasions. Back in the days of the Skylab space station, the astronauts even built a Christmas tree out of empty aluminum food cans!
And there’s always a special holiday message, and the tradition started way back with Apollo 8, the first crewed mission to leave Earth orbit and swing around the Moon before heading back home. The astronauts took turns reading from the book of Genesis then, which gave the beautiful views of our Earth a whole new meaning. But what’s remained the same throughout the years is the message of peace and hope from a place where you can’t see political borders – only one single, very fragile planet.
For a comprehensive list of NASA’s accomplishments and happenings from 2019 check out https://www.nasa.gov/2019
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org