As anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth with (typically? always?) six astronauts on board. It has been doing this for something like the last fifteen years. One of the astronauts currently on board is the Disunited Kingdom’s first Government-funded astronaut, Tim Peake.
The first British person to go into space was Helen Sharman, but she went into space in a privately funded arrangement with the Russian Space Programme in 1991. Other British-born astronauts have gone into space through having become naturalised Americans, and going into space with NASA. But, Tim Peake has gone to the ISS as part of ESA’s space programme, and his place is due to Britain’s contribution to ESA’s astronaut programme. So, he is the first UK Government-funded astronaut, which is why there has been so much fuss about it in these lands.Anyway, I digress. This blog is not about Tim Peake per se, or about the ISS really. I wanted this blog to be about whether Tim Peake is getting older or younger whilst in orbit. Of course everyone is getting older, including Tim Peake, as ‘time waits for no man’ as the saying goes. What I really mean is whether time is passing more or less quickly for Tim Peake (and the other astronauts) in the ISS compared to those of us on Earth.
As some of you might now, when an astronaut is in orbit he is in a weaker gravitational field, as the Earth’s gravitational field drops off with distance (actually as the square of the distance) from the centre of the Earth. Time will therefore pass more quickly for Tim Peake than for someone on the Earth’s surface due to this effect. This is time dilation due to gravity, a general relativity (GR) effect.
But, there is also another time dilation, the time dilation due to one’s motion relative to another observer, the time dilation in special relativity (SR). Because Tim Peake is in orbit, and hence moving relative to someone on the surface of the Earth, this means that time will appear to move more slowly for him as observed by someone on Earth. Interestingly (at least for me!), the SR effect works in the opposite sense to the GR effect.
Which effect is greater? And, how big is the effect?
Time dilation due to SR – slowing it down for Tim Peake
As I showed in this blog, the time dilation due to SR can be calculated using the equation
If he is in orbit at an altitude of 500km (I guessed at this amount, according to Wikipedia it is 400km, but it does not alter the argument which ensues) then his distance from the centre of the Earth (assuming a spherical Earth) is metres. The centripetal force keeping him in orbit is provided by the force of gravity, and in this blog I showed that the centripetal force is given by
where is the mass of the object in orbit, is its velocity and is the radius of its orbit.This centripetal force is being provided by gravity, which we know is
where is the universal gravitational constant, and is the mass of the Earth. Putting these two equal to each other
Putting in the values we have for the ISS, where and , we find that
But, this is the motion relative to the centre of the Earth. People on the surface of the Earth are also moving about the centre, as the Earth is spinning on its axis. But, we cannot calculate this speed as we have done above; people on the surface are not in orbit, but on the Earth’s surface. For something to stay e.g. 1 metre above the Earth’s surface in orbit it would have to move considerably quicker than the rotation rate of the Earth.
The Earth turns once every 24 hours, so for someone on the equator they are moving at
where refers to the speed of someone on the surface of the Earth. Someone at other latitudes is moving less quickly, at the poles they are not moving at all relative to the centre of the Earth. The speed of someone on the surface will go as where is the latitude. This is why we launch satellites as close to the Earth’s equator as is feasible; we maximise and thus get the benefit of the speed of rotation of the Earth at the launch site to boost the rocket’s speed in an easterly direction.
The difference in speeds between the ISS and someone at the equator on the surface of Earth is therefore
Referring back to my blog on time dilation in special relativity that I mentioned at the start of this section, this means that the time dilation factor , using this value of , is
(where is, of course, the speed of light).
This value of is equal to unity to 3 parts in , so it would require Tim Peake to orbit for about seconds for the time dilation factor to amount to 1 second. seconds is just over 96 years, let us say 100 years.
The time dilation due to GR – speeding it up for Tim Peake
For GR, the time dilation works in the other sense, it will run more slowly for those of us on the Earth’s surface; we experience gravitational time dilation which is greater than that experienced by Tim Peake. In this blog here, I derived from the principle of equivalence the time dilation due to GR, and found
where, in this case, would be the rate of time passing on the Earth’s surface, the rate of time passing on the ISS, (the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth’s surface) and is the height of the orbit, which we have assumed (see above) to be 500 km = .
Plugging in these values we get that
So, the GR effect is about one part in (100 billion). In six months, the number of seconds that Tim Peake will be in orbit is about seconds, so a factor of about 10,000 less than for the GR effect to amount to 1 second. Tim Peake would need to be in orbit for about 5,000 years for the GR effect to amount to 1 second of difference!
In conclusion, the SR effect on how quickly time is passing for Tim Peake is about 3 parts in 10 billion, in the sense that it passes more slowly for Tim Peake. The GR effect is even smaller, about one part in 100 billion, but in the sense that time is passing more quickly for him. The SR ‘time slowing down’ effect is greater than the GR time ‘passing more quickly effect’, by roughly a factor of 300.
Tim Peake is therefore actually ageing more slowly by being in orbit than if he were on Earth. But, he would need to orbit for nearly 100 years for this difference to amount to just 1 second! And, none of this of course takes into account the detrimental biological effects of being in orbit, which are probably not good to anyone’s longevity!