Space exploration has long been synonymous with cutting-edge technologies and a pioneering spirit that pushes the boundaries of human achievement. From powerful rocket engines to sophisticated satellite systems, space missions have been at the forefront of technological innovation. However, amidst the high-tech marvels, space exploration also emphasizes practical solutions, often resorting to proven methods.
One remarkable example is in timekeeping. Despite the availability of modern electronic timekeeping devices, classical mechanical solutions are still employed in space exploration today. In fact, the first watches taken to space were not even designed for the purpose; rather, they were retrofitted to meet the most basic criteria for the challenging conditions of space travel. This showcases the adaptability and improvisation that characterize space exploration, where even seemingly mundane items can become critical components in the pursuit of scientific discovery.
In today’s era, which is dominated by digital technology, the continued use of mechanical movements for timekeeping may seem antiquated. However, mechanical watches offer inherent qualities that make them uniquely suited for the challenges encountered beyond Earth's atmosphere.
One of the primary advantages of mechanical movements in space exploration is their resilience to extreme conditions. In the harsh environment of space, where temperatures can fluctuate dramatically and radiation levels are high, electronic devices are vulnerable to malfunction. For example, small batteries such as those found in smartphones and smartwatches degrade rapidly in cold temperatures. Furthermore, digital screens such as LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) can begin freezing in subzero conditions (let alone -120C) rendering them useless. Even if the screen and battery issues would be solved, electronics are still susceptible to solar radiation, particularly in the case of small, minimally insulated devices like watches.
In contrast, mechanical watches, with their intricate but robust mechanisms, are more resistant to these environmental factors, ensuring reliable timekeeping even in the most adverse conditions. Mechanical systems also provide redundancy, a crucial aspect in mission-critical operations. Carrying a back up mechanical watch is standard practice for many divers, adding redundancy to their Garmin/dive computer. In space, where equipment failure can have catastrophic consequences, having redundant systems is equally paramount.
In the history of space exploration, manual winding mechanical watches were initially preferred over automatic ones due to the assumption that automatic movements wouldn't function properly in microgravity. In practice this has shown not to be the case because the ability for a rotor inside automatic watches to wind relies on the inertia of the mass through movements, which persists even in microgravity environments. This is an area which has not been heavily studied with and we continue to research towards optimal winding systems in microgravity environments.
At Barrelhand, our guiding philosophy for the development of Monolith is straightforward: we are dedicated to crafting the ultimate timing instrument for the unique demands of space exploration. Prioritizing functionality over prestige, our focus is on delivering a reliable tool that integrates innovative technologies wherever feasible, while adhering to traditional methods that have proven to be the most effective.
In our search for a reliable movement, we have been prioritizing dependability over brand recognition and hand finishes. The goal has been to identify a solution with a proven track record that can serve as a reliable workhorse for a product that is focused on functionality. The Swiss-made SW300-1b by Sellita, which has been crafting movements since 1950, emerged as our pragmatic choice.
First introduced in 2003, the SW200 and SW300 have been the foundation for a wide range of functional tool watches, like the Sinn U50, Bell & Ross BR-CAL.302 and BR-CAL.318, IWC 35110, and TAG Heuer Calibre 7. The SW300-1b is an evolution and upgraded engine from the SW200, which is 22% thinner and 20% lighter compared to its predecessor.
“We spent the last 3 years experimenting with a variety of different engines, from exotic escapements to the small batch ultra-high end. From the beginning, our focus was to find an engine that has a proven track record in reliability, accuracy, and longevity. The SW300-1b has been refined over 20 years of implementation and feedback from real world testing in millions of watches. From this robust foundation we added practical upgrades and chronometric regulation to make it what we believe to be the best engine currently available for space exploration. We also completely redesigned our engine mounts and chassis, making Monolith a truly modular system. This modularity simplifies serviceability in space and makes room for hot swappable upgrades as new technology becomes available.”
To enhance an already reliable movement, we've implemented various practical upgrades towards the Barrelhand M1 engine.
We've employed a paramagnetic Nickel-phosphorus alloy for the escape-wheel and pallet forks, an upgraded feature akin to those used in Rolex movements. This alloy not only significantly improves antimagnetic properties but also exhibits high corrosion resistance and nearly double the hardness of standard stainless steel. This is critical for maintaining precise and consistent timekeeping in the long term while reducing friction. The engine is ISO764 / DIN 8309 certified meaning it can resist exposure to a direct current magnetic field of 4800 A/m.
To boost its shock absorption capabilities, we've integrated an Incabloc suspension system over the more standard Novodiac system. This mechanism creates a spring-loaded mount for the jewels supporting the balance wheel pivot for greater resistance against external impacts. The engine passes Chronofiable A8, which means it can withstand shocks of at least 555 G.
Every bridge is plated in ruthenium to further improve corrosion and wear resistance. Finally, the M1 Engine undergoes extensive chronometric regulation, adjusted in 5 positions down to an internally verified mean accuracy of +/-4 seconds.