When will it become 2021 on the International Space Station?

For many people living on Earth, knowing when to clink champagne glasses and shout “Happy New Year!” is usually a straightforward process that’s hard to mess up (so long as you’re not boggle-eyed on booze, that is).

But for astronauts aboard an orbiting outpost hurtling around Earth 16 times a day at a speed of 17,500 mph, well, how can they possibly know when to welcome a new year?

It’s actually pretty simple. When the International Space Station (ISS) went into service 20 years ago, it needed to choose a time zone to operate by. Perhaps not surprisingly, NASA and its international partners opted for the Universal Time Clock (UTC), equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in London.

It means that 2021 will officially begin aboard the space station at 4 p.m. PT on Thursday, January 31 (in other words, midnight UTC/GMT).

But traveling at that crazy speed 250 miles above Earth, and with so many sunrises and sunsets occurring within a single day, you could also say that an ISS crew has the unique chance to ring in a new year a whopping 16 times in 24 hours. Though the novelty would probably start wearing off after about the fourth time.

Things could get even more complicated if each crew member decides to celebrate the new year according to when the clock strikes midnight in their homeland (or time zone if an astronaut’s country has more than one).

There are three different nationalities among the space station’s current Expedition 64 crew — four Americans (Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Kate Rubins), two Russians (Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov), and one Japanese (Soichi Noguchi). But don’t for a moment think they’ll be celebrating on Thursday night with a few glasses of champagne — alcohol consumption isn’t allowed on board the space station. The most they’ll probably do is enjoy a meal together and chat with their families over a video link.

The Expedition 64 crew aboard the space station at the end of 2020. NASA

At the turn of the year in 2014, Expedition 42 crew members Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts offered earthlings New Year’s salutations via a video message (below).

“Have a great new year and a safe new year down there, and we’ll enjoy our 16 New Year’s Eve celebrations here on board the space station,” Virts quipped.

Astronauts aboard the orbiting outpost also offer new year’s greetings to members of the mission control centers in Houston and Moscow at the appropriate local times (6 a.m. and 9 p.m. GMT, respectively).

Discover more about everyday life on the space station with these insightful videos created by the astronauts themselves.

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