Time Keeping in Space

Time keeping in a era of interstellar travel poses a particular difficulty. Each planet colonized by humans will have a different rotational cycle and our well-known twenty-four hours a day on Earth would have little applicability to other worlds. However, a Navy must be synchronized or else coordinating action between ships, battle groups and fleets becomes impossible. The Commonwealth Navy has, since its inception, maintained coordinated universal time, also known as UTC, aboard all its ships. The prime source of UTC in the future remains Earth, and regular signals are sent out via subspace radio to repeater nodes, to propagate a time signal used by military forces, as well as most civilian shipping lines and other interstellar actors. A Navy starship arriving at a starbase orbiting a distant colony at noon, ship time, will find the base’s clocks also showing noon of the same day – unless the ship’s time has drifted, such as the rare occasions where relativistic phenomena during travel cause the ship to lose sync with the universe. In such cases, the ship’s clocks are reset.

The Navy has kept the ancient system of watches and bells to divide its day, for that remains constant, even if the ship falls out of sync with the rest of the galaxy. Each day is divided into six four hour watches, and each watch into eight segments of thirty minutes. Each segment of thirty minutes is marked by the tolling of the ship’s bell. The watches are named as follows:

  • Midnight to 04:00 – Night Watch
  • 04:00 to 08:00 – Morning Watch
  • 08:00 to Noon – Forenoon Watch
  • Noon to 16:00 – Afternoon Watch
  • 16:00 to 20:00 – Dog Watch, which can be further subdivided into the First and Second Dog Watches of two hours each, depending on the way watches are organised aboard ship
  • 20:00 to Midnight – Evening Watch

The first bell of a watch sounds out at 30 minutes after the start of the watch and each watch ends with the ship’s bell tolling eight times. Thus, when Dunmoore orders a department heads meeting at six bells in the Forenoon Watch, she means 11:00 (or 11am) as landlubbers recon time; as a further example, supper in the wardroom is served starting at two bells in the Dog Watch, or 17:00 hrs (5pm) and lasts until six bells in the Dog Watch, i.e. 19:00 (or 7pm). Of course, on a starship, the computer sounds out one or more tones very much like a ship’s bell every thirty minutes. The actual bell is a ceremonial item kept in a reinforced display cabinet at the rear of the bridge and is rung only twice in a ship’s life: once at its commissioning and then again only at the moment it is decommissioned, when it is rung nine times.