Earth should have the cool Star Trek universal time stardate

17 May 2023

Photo of four clocks with different time zone times

Image courtesy of Michal Jarmoluk.

The popular, long running, Star trek science-fiction franchise, thanks to its creator Gene Roddenberry, has given us a lot. There are fantastic starships — all shapes and sizes — capable of traversing the galaxy in a flash. There’s the USS Enterprise from the original series, and then USS Titan-A, seen in the third series of the recently screened Picard TV series.

There’s the old school favourite crew: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov. Then there’s the more recent Discovery crew, whose exploits predate those of the original Enterprise, and then stretch all the way into the thirty-second century, nine hundred years later.

There’s no question about it. Star Trek has the lot. The aliens and the adventure. The amour and the antagonism. The adversity and the aspiration. The lovable and the despicable. Phasers and transporters. And of course, stardate.

Wait up, stardate? What’s that?

Put simply, stardate is a time standard used throughout the Star Trek universe. And a pretty essential one at that. If you find figuring out time differences between certain countries on Earth confusing, imagine trying to do the same across the galaxy. Even doing so within the solar system would be a nightmare. Earth is part of a family of eight (depending who you ask, that is) planets orbiting the Sun. The rotational periods of each body, relative to Earth, with the possible exception of Mars, are just about unique.

So, if it’s four o’clock in the afternoon in London, what is the local time in the vicinity of the Gusev crater on Mars? That might be easy to figure out, assuming Mars one day ends up with formal time zones. But what of other locations around the solar system? For instance, a “day” on Venus lasts 5832 hours. That’s the same as 243 days on Earth. In fact a day on Venus is longer than a year on Venus, which clocks in at about 225 Earth days. Earth based time keeping methods might not then work too well on Venus.

But the time difference question becomes even murkier when the numerous moons of the solar system’s planets are taken into account. Between them, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have a stack of satellites. And while I’m not aware of any plans to establish bases on these bodies, I’m sure the idea has been broached. If it’s eight o’clock in the morning in Suva, Fiji, what’s local time at a base of ours on Triton, one of Neptune’s satellites? Assuming, that is, bases could be established in the first place, and Triton is assigned time zones in the process.

Well, stardate to the rescue. Establishing a universal, or blanket time, on all places beyond Earth, would make time keeping across the solar system simple. And the galaxy. And, come to that, it’d be pretty good on Earth also. If it’s stardate something or other in London, it will be the same stardate in Wellington, New Zealand. But let’s come back to that thought later.

How is stardate worked out?

Great then. Stardate sounds like some sort of universal time system. Whether you’re on the east coast of Australia, or one of the moons of Sherbet III (which I’m sure is out there somewhere) thousands of light years distant, stardate remains the same. No need to adjust for differences in time zones. Or even time dilation, a phenomenon which appears to be absent from the Star Trek universe. But stardate is a deceptively complicated time tracking construct, and that, ironically, is a product of Star Trek, rather than stardate.

In early episodes of what’s called The Original Series (TOS) of Star Trek, which screened in the 1960’s, stardate made for a useful way of concealing the actual calendar year setting of the show. Perhaps Star Trek producers wanted to protect themselves from cynical segments of the audience (What? Some Star Trek viewers were cynics?), who might berate them for making the wrong calls about the timings of the invention of certain technologies seen in the show.

No one could castigate the producers for offering the wrong date for the advent of warp drive, since no one could (at the time) correlate a given stardate to a specific year. As the show went on though, it became apparent the early Star Trek stories played out in the twenty-third century, or about two hundred years in the future. Still, while stardate was effective at hiding the calendar year, screenwriters were reportedly casual in the application of stardate, at least initially, using, it seems, whatever number came into their heads.

This would have frustrated fans who were intrigued by stardate, and were trying to figure out how it was calculated. In early TOS episodes, stardate was a four figure number, with a decimal point, for instance, 1502.1. The decimal value represented a segment of a twenty-four hour Earth day, which was divided by ten. On my example stardate value of 1502.1, the point one (.1) would be a time between midnight and 2:40AM. Starships however still used twenty-four hour clocks, for (local) ship time, and these are visible in some Star Trek stories.

Why is stardate (needlessly) complicated?

This is because each new Star Trek “spin-off” series, or generation, seem to use stardate differently.

While stardates in TOS shows and movies didn’t move past four figures, that changed when The Next Generation (TNG) arrived in 1987. Here stardates had advanced to values of over forty thousand. The stardate of the first episode of the first TV series of TNG was about 41000. This number advanced by one thousand with each successive series of TNG. The stardate at the beginning of the second TNG series would have been about 42000. Then 43000 for the third series, and so on.

This system suggested an Earth calendar year equated to one thousand stardate units. But only for TNG stories. TOS stardates were another matter. Between the first TOS TV show, broadcast in the 1960’s, with James Kirk as captain of the USS Enterprise, to the last appearance of Kirk and the TOS core crew in 1991, thirty-three years (in canon) is said to have elapsed. Yet the stardate in The Undiscovered Country, the final story with the TOS crew, was stated as 9529.1. Surely it should have been over 33000 by then?

How confusing is that? We’re also told the TNG stories commenced ninety-five years after the last TOS story, but I think this figure refers to the final TOS TV show, and not the subsequent movies the TOS crew were in. The Motion Picture, the first of the TOS movies, although made ten years after the final TOS TV show, is set five years after events of the TV show, where the stardate is given as 7410.2. The stardate for the final TOS TV show, broadcast in 1696, is 5943.7.

The difference in the two suggests stardate advances by about three-hundred units per year for the TOS stories. If the first TNG TV show is set about seventy years after The Undiscovered Country, the final TOS story, surely the TNG stardate should be closer to eighty-thousand, instead of about forty-thousand, if stardate advances in thousand units increments every year. But trying to figure out stardate conventions is almost as confusing as trying work out the differences between the world’s various time zones.

Yet if the time span in calendar years between The Motion Picture (stardate 7410.2) and The Undiscovered Country (stardate 9529.1) is about twenty years, that gives stardate an annual value of about one-hundred and five units. My head is spinning. But if stardate — for all the difficulty in figuring out how it is calculated — was intended as a universal time, it no doubt would have suited the space-faring members of Star Trek’s galactic federation.

If stardate was indeed a universal time, its value would be fixed. It would be the same regardless of an observer’s location in the galaxy, or federation space. And this would obviously have made organising rendezvous, gatherings, and the like, straightforward. Having said that, I suspect stardate operated in tandem with local times on planetary systems across the galaxy, so federation denizens would be accustomed to living with at least two time keeping systems.

Stardate, a universal time for Earth?

If stardate works as a universal time standard around the solar system and beyond, could something similar be adopted on Earth? Doing so would certainly make life a lot easier. A standard, fixed, global time, would eliminate the confusion associated with the current twenty-four separate time zones. In 2014, Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of media outlet Vox, suggested the world consider moving to a single, or “giant” time zone, describing the present time zones as “more trouble than they are worth.”

They were a good idea at the time, but in the modern world they cause more trouble than they are worth. Now that several generations of humanity are accustomed to abstracting time away from the happenstance of where the sun is located, it’s time to do away with this barbarous relic of the past. Everyone on the planet should operate according to a single time — Greenwich Mean Time would be suggested by tradition — and then local schedules could differ from place to place according to personal taste and local practicality.

As I’ve already said, who doesn’t find differences between time zones confusing? And as for daylight saving… well, let’s not go there.

But what if there were a global time, meaning the time was the same everywhere? Would that not make things so much easier? Sure, implementing such a time zone, which perhaps I could refer to here as Earth Time, means plenty would change. But that doesn’t mean doing away with the existing time standards. A global time zone would still be used side-by-side with, say, the existing Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), or Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) time standards, meaning everyone retains the local time they’re used to.

Because if those in the Star Trek universe can live comfortably with two time standards — stardate, and a local time — so can we.

An Earth Time wouldn’t mean moving the whole planet onto the same schedule either. For example, people on the east coast of Australia wouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night so they could be in sync with sunrise in, say, California. They’d still be rising at their usual time, which would most likely be during daylight hours (assuming they’re not early birds, shift workers, and the like), and living their lives exactly as they always have.

But a global Earth Time would make interacting with people in other parts of the world less bothersome. For example, scheduling a conference call with colleagues in other countries would entail settling on an Earth Time that suited everyone. “Yes, 1530 Earth Time, works for me.” As Yglesias also points out, Earth Time would suit travellers crossing state or national borders. Straight off the bat, they would know exactly how long they would be in transit, without having to work out the differences across various time zones.

If an international flight is scheduled to depart from somewhere at 1100 Earth Time, and reach its destination at 1800 Earth Time, a traveller can immediately see that the flight time will be seven hours. Tell me now, how good is a global time zone?

What format would a global time take?

While an Earth Time would work in same way as stardate, in that it is a universal-like time standard, it would not have stardate’s “count-up” format. Earth Time wouldn’t start at zero, which presumably (maybe) stardate did at one point, and continue going up infinitely, rather it would be based on the far simpler twenty-four hour clock. It would start at 0000 each day, and conclude at 2359. An Earth Time could of course have a six-digit format to take seconds into account, allowing for greater precision, for example, 093515.

Expressing Earth Time without the colons seen on most digital clocks could possibly help differentiate Earth Time from local time. Digital clocks could be designed to feature both times. If Earth Time was 065515, local time might be, depending on your location, 15:55:15. Doubtless savvy designers will be able to incorporate both time formats onto analogue (analog) clocks as well. And with potentially two time zones in play, World, and local, a convention governing days would need to be established.

This would probably mean days fall according to World Time. People in some locations may find the day of the week ticking over to the next day at times other than midnight. Someone might, say, be in a meeting at 14:00 local time on Tuesday, but find they have, say, a dentist appointment only an hour later at 15:00, but the day will suddenly be Wednesday. This is because World Time has ticked over to 000000 in the interim. No doubt though our electronic timekeepers and clocks will guide us through these peculiarities.

Making time for global time

Introducing a global time zone would be a huge undertaking, and pose its share of challenges. The process would need to be spread over years, possibly decades, to give everyone a chance to adapt to it, and make the necessary infrastructure changes. But the benefits are well worth considering. If a global time zone doesn’t come to pass though, fret not. Star Trek canon tells us stardate will arrive in around 2266. That’s only about two-hundred and forty years away.


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