Selected from the Explainer archives, here are two important questions about the conclusion of the solar year:
How do the astronauts onboard the International Space Station know when to celebrate New Year's? They're hurtling through time zones at 17,500 miles per hour!
They go by Greenwich Mean Time. By convention, the ISS astronauts set their clocks to ring in the New Year with those in London, Reykjavik, and Accra. The crew of the space station may also exchange holiday 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.
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.
A space station New Year's Eve party might be kind of lame, anyway. There's no alcohol allowed onboard, 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.
(Read more on space-station celebrations.)
The first babies to be born in the new year often end up getting photographed for the local newspaper. Is it possible to have the first newborn of 2011 on purpose?
It would be a long shot. Doctors can try to speed up or slow down a delivery, but they probably wouldn't do this without a medical reason. One way to make things happen sooner would be to have an elective C-section. These operations take about half an hour, so you might try to persuade your doctor to schedule something for 11:30 at night, though that's pretty unlikely; these procedures tend to take place during the day when lots of staff are around.
During vaginal deliveries, doctors can induce labor or speed it up by giving drugs that make contractions stronger and more frequent. These might be prescribed to a mother who is long past her due date or whose cervix hasn't dilated enough. Doctors can also give drugs to slow down labor, for babies who are less than 37 weeks old, or if the mother's contractions are so fast as to deprive the baby of oxygen. Either way, doctors can't predict how much medications will actually help.
What if it's 11:55 p.m. and the baby's almost out—could a determined mother hold things up to secure the title? She might try, but it's extremely difficult to do this for more than a few minutes. (Epidurals, which are given ahead of time to relieve pain, remove some of the urge to push.) Some health professionals also say that it's possible to control labor by encouraging the mother to breath in a particular way. For instance, it's hard to push if you pant like you're blowing out a candle.