When do they celebrate New Year's on the International Space Station?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 31 2009 11:49 AM

New Year's Eve in Space

When do the astronauts pop open the champagne?

New Year's Eve decorations.
Party favors

Last week a Russian spacecraft ferried three astronauts to the International Space Station to join the two who had been manning it since October. The crew took Christmas Day off to share meals together. What about celebrating New Year's—how do you pick the right moment when you're hurtling through time zones at 17,500 miles per hour?

Just wait until midnight, Greenwich Mean Time. By convention, the astronauts set their clocks to GMT, also known as Coordinated Universal Time. That means they'll officially ring in the New Year with those in London, Reykjavik, and Accra. The crew of the space station will also exchange New Year's greetings with mission controllers in Moscow and Houston at the local midnights in those two places—9 p.m. and 6 a.m. GMT, respectively.

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While the astronauts acknowledge New Year's Day, they won't have much of a celebration. They'll all stop working in the evening to gather around a communal table, with their feet in toeholds and the plates velcroed to the table, and share a meal of foods from their three countries of origin—the United States, Russia, and Japan. (Although the crew shares a common dining area, its hectic schedule doesn't normally allow for eating together.) They might also take some time to videoconference with their families, but most of the day will be like any other.

Space station holidays are established at the beginning of each mission and depend on the nationalities of the crew members. The current crew will recognize New Year's Day, Russian Orthodox Christmas, and Russian Defender of the Fatherland Day. The next two missions—set to begin in March and May 2010—will celebrate Showa Day (honoring the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito), Russian Victory Day, U.S. Independence Day, and Labor Day. Like this Friday, most of these are only partial days off. On the rare full vacation day, like Christmas, the crew can elect to shirk its nonessential research duties in favor of reading, watching movies, or gazing longingly out the windows at Earth.

A space station New Year's Eve party might be kind of lame, anyway. There's no alcohol allowed on board, and sparkling cider isn't an option, either. When a carbonated beverage is shaken—an unavoidable side effect of being launched into space—some carbon dioxide comes out of the solution. On Earth, that gas would float to the top of the bottle and escape when you open it, creating a hissing sound. In a low-gravity environment, the undissolved gas forms bubbles within the beverage rather than floating to the top, rendering it foamy and undrinkable. There's no easy way for the astronauts to view the Times Square festivities, either. Mission Control occasionally uses its data stream to relay important television programming, such as a presidential announcement or the Army-Navy football game, but Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve has never been viewed in space.

The eats wouldn't be too bad, though. In late 2008, the space shuttle Endeavor brought a second refrigerator to the station—the original refrigerator is used only for science experiments—giving the astronauts some time to consume fresh foods. An unmanned Russian spacecraft brings fresh produce and other delicacies every two or three months. The Christmas menu included turkey, cornbread dressing, yams, and green beans.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Michael Curie of NASA and Svetlana Gavrish of Roscosmos.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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