Atomic clock

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Atomic clock
FOCS 1, a continuous cold caesium fountain atomic clock in Switzerland, started operating in 2004 at an uncertainty of one second in 30 million years.
Classification Clock
Industry Telecommunications, science
Application TAI, satellite navigation
Fuel source Electricity
The master atomic clock ensemble at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., which provides the time standard for the U.S. Department of Defense. The rack mounted units in the background are Microsemi (formerly HP) 5071A caesium beam clocks. The black units in the foreground are Microsemi (formerly Sigma-Tau) MHM-2010 hydrogen maser standards. Usno-mc.jpg
The master atomic clock ensemble at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., which provides the time standard for the U.S. Department of Defense. The rack mounted units in the background are Microsemi (formerly HP) 5071A caesium beam clocks. The black units in the foreground are Microsemi (formerly Sigma-Tau) MHM-2010 hydrogen maser standards.

An atomic clock is a clock device that uses a hyperfine transition frequency in the microwave, or electron transition frequency in the optical, or ultraviolet region [2] of the electromagnetic spectrum of atoms as a frequency standard for its timekeeping element. Atomic clocks are the most accurate time and frequency standards known, and are used as primary standards for international time distribution services, to control the wave frequency of television broadcasts, and in global navigation satellite systems such as GPS.

Clock Instrument for measuring, keeping or indicating time.

A clock is an instrument used to measure, keep, and indicate time. The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, meeting the need to measure intervals of time shorter than the natural units: the day, the lunar month, and the year. Devices operating on several physical processes have been used over the millennia.

Hyperfine structure small shifts and splittings in the energy levels of atoms, molecules and ions

In atomic physics, hyperfine structure comprises small shifts and splittings in the energy levels of atoms, molecules, and ions, due to interaction between the state of the nucleus and the state of the electron clouds.

Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency, which emphasizes the contrast to spatial frequency and angular frequency. The period is the duration of time of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency. For example: if a newborn baby's heart beats at a frequency of 120 times a minute, its period—the time interval between beats—is half a second. Frequency is an important parameter used in science and engineering to specify the rate of oscillatory and vibratory phenomena, such as mechanical vibrations, audio signals (sound), radio waves, and light.


The principle of operation of an atomic clock is based on atomic physics; it measures the electromagnetic signal that electrons in atoms emit when they change energy levels. Early atomic clocks were based on masers at room temperature. Since 2004, more accurate atomic clocks first cool the atoms to near absolute zero temperature by slowing them with lasers and probing them in atomic fountains in a microwave-filled cavity. An example of this is the NIST-F1 atomic clock, one of the national primary time and frequency standards of the United States.

Atomic physics is the field of physics that studies atoms as an isolated system of electrons and an atomic nucleus. It is primarily concerned with the arrangement of electrons around the nucleus and the processes by which these arrangements change. This comprises ions, neutral atoms and, unless otherwise stated, it can be assumed that the term atom includes ions.

Electron subatomic particle with negative electric charge

The electron is a subatomic particle, symbol
, whose electric charge is negative one elementary charge. Electrons belong to the first generation of the lepton particle family, and are generally thought to be elementary particles because they have no known components or substructure. The electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton. Quantum mechanical properties of the electron include an intrinsic angular momentum (spin) of a half-integer value, expressed in units of the reduced Planck constant, ħ. Being fermions, no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state, in accordance with the Pauli exclusion principle. Like all elementary particles, electrons exhibit properties of both particles and waves: they can collide with other particles and can be diffracted like light. The wave properties of electrons are easier to observe with experiments than those of other particles like neutrons and protons because electrons have a lower mass and hence a longer de Broglie wavelength for a given energy.

Energy level Different states of quantum systems

A quantum mechanical system or particle that is bound—that is, confined spatially—can only take on certain discrete values of energy, called energy levels. This contrasts with classical particles, which can have any amount of energy. The term is commonly used for the energy levels of electrons in atoms, ions, or molecules, which are bound by the electric field of the nucleus, but can also refer to energy levels of nuclei or vibrational or rotational energy levels in molecules. The energy spectrum of a system with such discrete energy levels is said to be quantized.

The accuracy of an atomic clock depends on two factors: the first is temperature of the sample atoms—colder atoms move much more slowly, allowing longer probe times, the second is the frequency and intrinsic linewidth of the electronic or hyperfine transition. Higher frequencies and narrow lines increase the precision.

Spontaneous emission is the process in which a quantum mechanical system transitions from an excited energy state to a lower energy state and emits a quantised amount of energy in the form of a photon. Spontaneous emission is ultimately responsible for most of the light we see all around us; it is so ubiquitous that there are many names given to what is essentially the same process. If atoms are excited by some means other than heating, the spontaneous emission is called luminescence. For example, fireflies are luminescent. And there are different forms of luminescence depending on how excited atoms are produced. If the excitation is affected by the absorption of radiation the spontaneous emission is called fluorescence. Sometimes molecules have a metastable level and continue to fluoresce long after the exciting radiation is turned off; this is called phosphorescence. Figurines that glow in the dark are phosphorescent. Lasers start via spontaneous emission, then during continuous operation work by stimulated emission.

National standards agencies in many countries maintain a network of atomic clocks which are intercompared and kept synchronized to an accuracy of 10−9 seconds per day (approximately 1 part in 1014). These clocks collectively define a continuous and stable time scale, the International Atomic Time (TAI). For civil time, another time scale is disseminated, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). UTC is derived from TAI, but has added leap seconds from UT1, to account for variations in the rotation of the Earth with respect to the solar time.

International Atomic Time is a high-precision atomic coordinate time standard based on the notional passage of proper time on Earth's geoid. It is the principal realisation of Terrestrial Time. It is also the basis for Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is used for civil timekeeping all over the Earth's surface. As of 31 December 2016, when another leap second was added, TAI is exactly 37 seconds ahead of UTC. The 37 seconds results from the initial difference of 10 seconds at the start of 1972, plus 27 leap seconds in UTC since 1972.

Coordinated Universal Time Primary time standard by which the world regulates clocks and time

Coordinated Universal Time is the primary time standard by which the world regulates clocks and time. It is within about 1 second of mean solar time at 0° longitude, and is not adjusted for daylight saving time. In some countries where English is spoken, the term Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is often used as a synonym for UTC and predates UTC by nearly 300 years.

Universal Time (UT) is a time standard based on Earth's rotation. It is a modern continuation of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), i.e., the mean solar time on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England. In fact, the expression "Universal Time" is ambiguous, as there are several versions of it, the most commonly used being Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and UT1. All of these versions of UT, except for UTC, are based on Earth's rotation relative to distant celestial objects, but with a scaling factor and other adjustments to make them closer to solar time. UTC is based on International Atomic Time, with leap seconds added to keep it within 0.9 second of UT1.


Louis Essen (right) and Jack Parry (left) standing next to the world's first caesium-133 atomic clock. Atomic Clock-Louis Essen.jpg
Louis Essen (right) and Jack Parry (left) standing next to the world's first caesium-133 atomic clock.

The idea of using atomic transitions to measure time was suggested by Lord Kelvin in 1879. [3] Magnetic resonance, developed in the 1930s by Isidor Rabi, became the practical method for doing this. [4] In 1945, Rabi first publicly suggested that atomic beam magnetic resonance might be used as the basis of a clock. [5] The first atomic clock was an ammonia absorption line device at 23870.1 MHz built in 1949 at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now NIST). It was less accurate than existing quartz clocks, but served to demonstrate the concept. [6] The first accurate atomic clock, a caesium standard based on a certain transition of the caesium-133 atom, was built by Louis Essen and Jack Parry in 1955 at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK. [7] [8] Calibration of the caesium standard atomic clock was carried out by the use of the astronomical time scale ephemeris time (ET). [9] In 1967, this led the scientific community to redefine the Second in terms of a specific atomic frequency. Equality of the ET second with the (atomic clock) SI second has been verified to within 1 part in 1010. [10] The SI second thus inherits the effect of decisions by the original designers of the ephemeris time scale, determining the length of the ET second.

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopic technique relying on the energy difference between the quantum spin states of electrons when exposed to an external magnetic field

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) is a physical observation in which nuclei in a strong constant magnetic field are perturbed by a weak oscillating magnetic field and respond by producing an electromagnetic signal with a frequency characteristic of the magnetic field at the nucleus. This process occurs near resonance, when the oscillation frequency matches the intrinsic frequency of the nuclei, which depends on the strength of the static magnetic field, the chemical environment, and the magnetic properties of the isotope involved; in practical applications with static magnetic fields up to ca. 20 tesla, the frequency is similar to VHF and UHF television broadcasts (60–1000 MHz). NMR results from specific magnetic properties of certain atomic nuclei. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy is widely used to determine the structure of organic molecules in solution and study molecular physics, crystals as well as non-crystalline materials. NMR is also routinely used in advanced medical imaging techniques, such as in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Ammonia Chemical compound of nitrogen and hydrogen

Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula NH3. A stable binary hydride, and the simplest pnictogen hydride, ammonia is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent smell. It is a common nitrogenous waste, particularly among aquatic organisms, and it contributes significantly to the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms by serving as a precursor to food and fertilizers. Ammonia, either directly or indirectly, is also a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceutical products and is used in many commercial cleaning products. It is mainly collected by downward displacement of both air and water. Ammonia is named for the Ammonians, worshipers of the Egyptian god Amun, who used ammonium chloride in their rituals.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a physical sciences laboratory, and a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce. Its mission is to promote innovation and industrial competitiveness. NIST's activities are organized into laboratory programs that include nanoscale science and technology, engineering, information technology, neutron research, material measurement, and physical measurement.

Since the beginning of development in the 1950s, atomic clocks have been based on the hyperfine transitions in hydrogen-1, caesium-133, and rubidium-87. The first commercial atomic clock was the Atomichron, manufactured by the National Company. More than 50 were sold between 1956 and 1960. This bulky and expensive instrument was subsequently replaced by much smaller rack-mountable devices, such as the Hewlett-Packard model 5060 caesium frequency standard, released in 1964. [4]

The Atomichron was the world's first commercial atomic clock, built by the National Company, Inc of Malden, Massachusetts. It was also the first self-contained portable atomic clock and was a caesium standard clock. More than 50 clocks with the trademarked Atomichron name were produced.

The National Radio Company, headquartered in Malden, Massachusetts, United States was an American manufacturer of radio equipment from 1914 to 1991.

Hewlett-Packard American information technology company

The Hewlett-Packard Company or Hewlett-Packard was an American multinational information technology company headquartered in Palo Alto, California. It developed and provided a wide variety of hardware components as well as software and related services to consumers, small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and large enterprises, including customers in the government, health and education sectors.

In the late 1990s four factors contributed to major advances in clocks: [11]

Chip-scale atomic clocks, such as this one unveiled in 2004, are expected to greatly improve GPS location. ChipScaleClock2 HR.jpg
Chip-scale atomic clocks, such as this one unveiled in 2004, are expected to greatly improve GPS location.

In August 2004, NIST scientists demonstrated a chip-scale atomic clock. [12] According to the researchers, the clock was believed to be one-hundredth the size of any other. It requires no more than 125  mW, [13] making it suitable for battery-driven applications. This technology became available commercially in 2011. [13] Ion trap experimental optical clocks are more precise than the current caesium standard.

In April 2015, NASA announced that it planned to deploy a Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), a miniaturized, ultra-precise mercury-ion atomic clock, into outer space. NASA said that the DSAC would be much more stable than other navigational clocks. [14]


Since 1967, the International System of Units (SI) has defined the second as the duration of 9192631770 cycles of radiation corresponding to the transition between two energy levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom. In 1997, the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) added that the preceding definition refers to a caesium atom at rest at a temperature of absolute zero. [15]

This definition makes the caesium oscillator the primary standard for time and frequency measurements, called the caesium standard. The definitions of other physical units, e.g., the volt and the metre, rely on the definition of the second. [16]

In this particular design, the time-reference of an atomic clock consists of an electronic oscillator operating at microwave frequency. The oscillator is arranged so that its frequency-determining components include an element that can be controlled by a feedback signal. The feedback signal keeps the oscillator tuned in resonance with the frequency of the hyperfine transition of caesium or rubidium.

The core of the Radio frequency atomic clock is a tunable microwave cavity containing a gas. In a hydrogen maser clock the gas emits microwaves (the gas mases ) on a hyperfine transition, the field in the cavity oscillates, and the cavity is tuned for maximum microwave amplitude. Alternatively, in a caesium or rubidium clock, the beam or gas absorbs microwaves and the cavity contains an electronic amplifier to make it oscillate. For both types the atoms in the gas are prepared in one hyperfine state prior to filling them into the cavity. For the second type the number of atoms which change hyperfine state is detected and the cavity is tuned for a maximum of detected state changes.

Most of the complexity of the clock lies in this adjustment process. The adjustment tries to correct for unwanted side-effects, such as frequencies from other electron transitions, temperature changes, and the spreading in frequencies caused by ensemble effects.[ clarification needed ] One way of doing this is to sweep the microwave oscillator's frequency across a narrow range to generate a modulated signal at the detector. The detector's signal can then be demodulated to apply feedback to control long-term drift in the radio frequency. In this way, the quantum-mechanical properties of the atomic transition frequency of the caesium can be used to tune the microwave oscillator to the same frequency, except for a small amount of experimental error. When a clock is first turned on, it takes a while for the oscillator to stabilize. In practice, the feedback and monitoring mechanism is much more complex.

Historical accuracy of atomic clocks from NIST Clock accuracy.svg
Historical accuracy of atomic clocks from NIST

A number of other atomic clock schemes are in use for other purposes. Rubidium standard clocks are prized for their low cost, small size (commercial standards are as small as 17 cm3) [13] and short-term stability. They are used in many commercial, portable and aerospace applications. Hydrogen masers (often manufactured in Russia) have superior short-term stability compared to other standards, but lower long-term accuracy.

Often, one standard is used to fix another. For example, some commercial applications use a rubidium standard periodically corrected by a global positioning system receiver (see GPS disciplined oscillator). This achieves excellent short-term accuracy, with long-term accuracy equal to (and traceable to) the U.S. national time standards.

The lifetime of a standard is an important practical issue. Modern rubidium standard tubes last more than ten years, and can cost as little as US$50.[ citation needed ] Caesium reference tubes suitable for national standards currently last about seven years and cost about US$35,000. The long-term stability of hydrogen maser standards decreases because of changes in the cavity's properties over time.

Modern clocks use magneto-optical traps to cool the atoms for improved precision.

Power consumption

The power consumption of atomic clocks varies with their size. Atomic clocks on the scale of one chip require less than 30 milliwatt; [17] Primary frequency and time standards like the United States Time Standard atomic clocks, NIST-F1 and NIST-F2, use far higher power. [12] [18]

Evaluated accuracy

The evaluated accuracy uB reports of various primary frequency and time standards are published online by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). Several frequency and time standards groups as of 2015 reported uB values in the 2 × 10−16 to 3 × 10−16 range. [19]

In 2011, the NPL-CsF2 caesium fountain clock operated by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which serves as the United Kingdom primary frequency and time standard, was improved regarding the two largest sources of measurement uncertainties — distributed cavity phase and microwave lensing frequency shifts. In 2011 this resulted in an evaluated frequency uncertainty reduction from uB = 4.1 × 10−16 to uB = 2.3 × 10−16;— the lowest value for any primary national standard at the time. [20] At this frequency uncertainty, the NPL-CsF2 is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in about 138 million (138 × 106) years. [21] [22] [23]

NIST physicists Steve Jefferts (foreground) and Tom Heavner with the NIST-F2 caesium fountain atomic clock, a civilian time standard for the United States. NIST-F2 cesium fountain atomic clock.jpg
NIST physicists Steve Jefferts (foreground) and Tom Heavner with the NIST-F2 caesium fountain atomic clock, a civilian time standard for the United States.

The NIST-F2 caesium fountain clock operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), was officially launched in April 2014, to serve as a new U.S. civilian frequency and time standard, along with the NIST-F1 standard. The planned uB performance level of NIST-F2 is 1 × 10−16. [24] "At this planned performance level the NIST-F2 clock will not lose a second in at least 300 million years." [25] NIST-F2 was designed using lessons learned from NIST-F1. The NIST-F2 key advance compared to the NIST-F1 is that the vertical flight tube is now chilled inside a container of liquid nitrogen, at −193 °C (−315.4 °F). This cycled cooling dramatically lowers the background radiation and thus reduces some of the very small measurement errors that must be corrected in NIST-F1. [26] [27]

The first in-house accuracy evaluation of NIST-F2 reported a uB of 1.1 × 10−16. [28] However, a published scientific criticism of that NIST F-2 accuracy evaluation described problems in its treatment of distributed cavity phase shifts and the microwave lensing frequency shift, [29] which is treated significantly differently than in the majority of accurate fountain clock evaluations. The next NIST-F2 submission to the BIPM in March, 2015 again reported a uB of 1.5 × 10−16, [30] but did not address the standing criticism. There have been neither subsequent reports to the BIPM from NIST-F2 nor has an updated accuracy evaluation been published.

At the request of the Italian standards organization, NIST fabricated many duplicate components for a second version of NIST-F2, known as IT-CsF2 to be operated by the Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRiM), NIST's counterpart in Turin, Italy. As of February 2016 the IT-CsF2 caesium fountain clock started reporting a uB of 1.7 × 10−16 in the BIPM reports of evaluation of primary frequency standards. [31] [32]


A caesium atomic clock from 1975 (upper unit) and battery backup (lower unit). President Pinera receives ESO's first atomic clock.jpg
A caesium atomic clock from 1975 (upper unit) and battery backup (lower unit).
An experimental strontium based optical clock. Strontium Clock (12196092854).jpg
An experimental strontium based optical clock.

Most research focuses on the often conflicting goals of making the clocks smaller, cheaper, more portable, more energy efficient, more accurate, more stable and more reliable. [34] The Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space is an example of clock research. [35] [36]

Secondary representations of the second

A list of frequencies recommended for secondary representations of the second is maintained by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) since 2006 and is available online. The list contains the frequency values and the respective standard uncertainties for the rubidium microwave transition and for several optical transitions. These secondary frequency standards are accurate at the level of parts in 10−18; however, the uncertainties provided in the list are in the range of parts in 10−1410−15 since they are limited by the linking to the caesium primary standard that currently (2015) defines the second.

Typeworking frequency
in Hz
relative Allan deviation
typical clocks
133Cs 9 192 631 770  by definition [37] 10−13
87Rb 6 834 682 610.904 324 [38] 10−12
1H 1 420 405 751.7667 [39] [40] 10−15
Optical clock (87Sr)429 228 004 229 873.4 [41] 10−17

For context, a femtosecond (1×10−15 s) is to a second what a second is to about 31.71 million (31.71×106) years and an attosecond (1×10−18 s) is to a second what a second is to about 31.71 billion (31.71×109) years.

21st century experimental atomic clocks that provide non-caesium-based secondary representations of the second are becoming so precise that they are likely to be used as extremely sensitive detectors for other things besides measuring frequency and time. For example, the frequency of atomic clocks is altered slightly by gravity, magnetic fields, electrical fields, force, motion, temperature and other phenomena. The experimental clocks tend to continue improving, and leadership in performance has been shifted back and forth between various types of experimental clocks.

Quantum clocks

In March 2008, physicists at NIST described a quantum logic clock based on individual ions of beryllium and aluminium. This clock was compared to NIST's mercury ion clock. These were the most accurate clocks that had been constructed, with neither clock gaining nor losing time at a rate that would exceed a second in over a billion years. [42] In February 2010, NIST physicists described a second, enhanced version of the quantum logic clock based on individual ions of magnesium and aluminium. Considered the world's most precise clock in 2010 with a fractional frequency inaccuracy of 8.6 × 10−18, it offers more than twice the precision of the original. [43] [44] In July 2019, NIST scientists demonstrated such a clock with total uncertainty of 9.4 × 10−19, which is the first demonstration of a clock with uncertainty below 10−18. [45] [46] [47]

The accuracy of experimental quantum clocks has since been superseded by experimental optical lattice clocks based on strontium-87 and ytterbium-171.

Optical clocks

May 2009- JILA's strontium optical atomic clock is based on neutral atoms. Shining a blue laser onto ultracold strontium atoms in an optical trap tests how efficiently a previous burst of light from a red laser has boosted the atoms to an excited state. Only those atoms that remain in the lower energy state respond to the blue laser, causing the fluorescence seen here. JILA's strontium optical atomic clock.jpg
May 2009- JILA's strontium optical atomic clock is based on neutral atoms. Shining a blue laser onto ultracold strontium atoms in an optical trap tests how efficiently a previous burst of light from a red laser has boosted the atoms to an excited state. Only those atoms that remain in the lower energy state respond to the blue laser, causing the fluorescence seen here.

The theoretical move from microwaves as the atomic "escapement" for clocks to light in the optical range (harder to measure but offering better performance) earned John L. Hall and Theodor W. Hänsch the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005. One of 2012's Physics Nobelists, David J. Wineland, is a pioneer in exploiting the properties of a single ion held in a trap to develop clocks of the highest stability.

New technologies, such as femtosecond frequency combs, optical lattices, and quantum information, have enabled prototypes of next-generation atomic clocks. These clocks are based on optical rather than microwave transitions. A major obstacle to developing an optical clock is the difficulty of directly measuring optical frequencies. This problem has been solved with the development of self-referenced mode-locked lasers, commonly referred to as femtosecond frequency combs. Before the demonstration of the frequency comb in 2000, terahertz techniques were needed to bridge the gap between radio and optical frequencies, and the systems for doing so were cumbersome and complicated. With the refinement of the frequency comb, these measurements have become much more accessible and numerous optical clock systems are now being developed around the world.

As in the radio range, absorption spectroscopy is used to stabilize an oscillator—in this case a laser. When the optical frequency is divided down into a countable radio frequency using a femtosecond comb, the bandwidth of the phase noise is also divided by that factor. Although the bandwidth of laser phase noise is generally greater than stable microwave sources, after division it is less.

The primary systems under consideration for use in optical frequency standards are:

These techniques allow the atoms or ions to be highly isolated from external perturbations, thus producing an extremely stable frequency reference.

Atomic systems under consideration include Al +, Hg +/2+, [49] Hg, Sr, Sr +/2+, In +/3+, Mg, Ca, Ca +, Yb +/2+/3+, Yb and Th +/3+. [51] [52] [53]

One of NIST's 2013 pair of ytterbium optical lattice atomic clocks. Ytterbium Lattice Atomic Clock (10444764266).jpg
One of NIST's 2013 pair of ytterbium optical lattice atomic clocks.

The rare-earth element ytterbium (Yb) is valued not so much for its mechanical properties but for its complement of internal energy levels. "A particular transition in Yb atoms, at a wavelength of 578 nm, currently provides one of the world's most accurate optical atomic frequency standards," said Marianna Safronova. [54] The estimated amount of uncertainty achieved corresponds to a Yb clock uncertainty of about one second over the lifetime of the universe so far, 15 billion years, according to scientists at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) and the University of Delaware in December 2012.

In 2013 optical lattice clocks (OLCs) were shown to be as good as or better than caesium fountain clocks. Two optical lattice clocks containing about 10 000 atoms of strontium-87 were able to stay in synchrony with each other at a precision of at least 1.5 × 10−16, which is as accurate as the experiment could measure. [55] These clocks have been shown to keep pace with all three of the caesium fountain clocks at the Paris Observatory. There are two reasons for the possibly better precision. Firstly, the frequency is measured using light, which has a much higher frequency than microwaves, and secondly, by using many atoms, any errors are averaged. [56] Using ytterbium-171 atoms, a new record for stability with a precision of 1.6×10−18 over a 7-hour period was published on 22 August 2013. At this stability, the two optical lattice clocks working independently from each other used by the NIST research team would differ less than a second over the age of the universe (13.8×109 years); this was 10 times better than previous experiments. The clocks rely on 10 000 ytterbium atoms cooled to 10 microkelvin and trapped in an optical lattice. A laser at 578 nm excites the atoms between two of their energy levels. [57] Having established the stability of the clocks, the researchers are studying external influences and evaluating the remaining systematic uncertainties, in the hope that they can bring the clock's accuracy down to the level of its stability. [58] An improved optical lattice clock was described in a 2014 Nature paper. [59] In 2015 JILA evaluated the absolute frequency uncertainty of a strontium-87 optical lattice clock at 2.1 × 10−18, which corresponds to a measurable gravitational time dilation for an elevation change of 2 cm (0.79 in) on planet Earth that according to JILA/NIST Fellow Jun Ye is "getting really close to being useful for relativistic geodesy". [60] [61] [62] At this frequency uncertainty, this JILA optical lattice clock is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in more than 15 billion (15 × 109) years. [63] [64]

JILA's 2017 three-dimensional (3-D) quantum gas atomic clock consists of a grid of light formed by three pairs of laser beams. A stack of two tables is used to configure optical components around a vacuum chamber. Shown here is the upper table, where lenses and other optics are mounted. A blue laser beam excites a cube-shaped cloud of strontium atoms located behind the round window in the middle of the table. Strontium atoms fluoresce strongly when excited with blue light. 17jila003 3d strontium atomic clock.jpg
JILA’s 2017 three-dimensional (3-D) quantum gas atomic clock consists of a grid of light formed by three pairs of laser beams. A stack of two tables is used to configure optical components around a vacuum chamber. Shown here is the upper table, where lenses and other optics are mounted. A blue laser beam excites a cube-shaped cloud of strontium atoms located behind the round window in the middle of the table. Strontium atoms fluoresce strongly when excited with blue light.

In 2017 JILA reported an experimental 3D quantum gas strontium optical lattice clock in which strontium-87 atoms are packed into a tiny three-dimensional (3-D) cube at 1,000 times the density of previous one-dimensional (1-D) clocks, like the 2015 JILA clock. A synchronous clock comparison between two regions of the 3D lattice yielded a record level of synchronization of 5 × 10−19 in 1 hour of averaging time. [65] The 3D quantum gas strontium optical lattice clock’s centerpiece is an unusual state of matter called a degenerate Fermi gas (a quantum gas for Fermi particles). The experimental data shows the 3D quantum gas clock achieved a precision of 3.5 × 10−19 in about two hours. According to Jun Ye "This represents a significant improvement over any previous demonstrations." Ye further commented "The most important potential of the 3D quantum gas clock is the ability to scale up the atom numbers, which will lead to a huge gain in stability." and "The ability to scale up both the atom number and coherence time will make this new-generation clock qualitatively different from the previous generation." [66] [67] [68] In 2018 JILA reported the 3D quantum gas clock reached a frequency precision of 2.5 × 10−19 over 6 hours. [69] [70] At this frequency uncertainty, this 3D quantum gas clock would lose or gain about 0.1 seconds over the age of the universe. [71]

Optical clocks are currently (2018) still primarily research projects, less mature than rubidium and caesium microwave standards, which regularly deliver time to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) for establishing International Atomic Time (TAI). [72] As the optical experimental clocks move beyond their microwave counterparts in terms of accuracy and stability performance this puts them in a position to replace the current standard for time, the caesium fountain clock. [49] [73] [74] In the future this might lead to redefine the caesium microwave based SI second and other new dissemination techniques at the highest level of accuracy to transfer clock signals will be required that can be used in both shorter-range and longer-range (frequency) comparisons between better clocks and to explore their fundamental limitations without significantly compromising their performance. [49] [75] [76] [77] [78]

Nuclear (optical) clock concept

A nuclear clock or nuclear optical clock is a notional clock concept that could potentially allow to improve atomic clock performance to beyond the present limits, which uses a nuclear instead of an atomic shell transition for laser stabilization. A nuclear clock was first proposed by E. Peik and Ch. Tamm in 2003. [79] In 2012 it was shown, that a nuclear clock based on a single 229Th3+ ion could provide an accuracy approaching 10−19, which is by about a factor of 10 better than existing atomic clock technology. [80] Up to 2019 significant progress toward the development of an experimental nuclear clock has been made. [81] [82] [83] [84]

Clock comparison techniques

In June 2015, the European National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, UK; the French department of Time-Space Reference Systems at the Paris Observatory (LNE-SYRTE); the German German National Metrology Institute (PTB) in Braunschweig; and Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRiM) in Turin labs have started tests to improve the accuracy of current state-of-the-art satellite comparisons by a factor 10, but it will still be limited to one part in 1 × 10−16. These 4 European labs are developing and host a variety of experimental optical clocks that harness different elements in different experimental set-ups and want to compare their optical clocks against each other and check whether they agree. In a next phase these labs strive to transmit comparison signals in the visible spectrum through fibre-optic cables. This will allow their experimental optical clocks to be compared with an accuracy similar to the expected accuracies of the optical clocks themselves. Some of these labs have already established fibre-optic links, and tests have begun on sections between Paris and Teddington, and Paris and Braunschweig. Fibre-optic links between experimental optical clocks also exist between the American NIST lab and its partner lab JILA, both in Boulder, Colorado but these span much shorter distances than the European network and are between just two labs. According to Fritz Riehle, a physicist at PTB, "Europe is in a unique position as it has a high density of the best clocks in the world". [85] In August 2016 the French LNE-SYRTE in Paris and German PTB in Braunschweig reported the comparison and agreement of two fully independent experimental strontium lattice optical clocks in Paris and Braunschweig at an uncertainty of 5 × 10−17 via a newly established phase-coherent frequency link connecting Paris and Braunschweig, using 1,415  km (879  mi ) of telecom fibre-optic cable. The fractional uncertainty of the whole link was assessed to be 2.5 × 10−19, making comparisons of even more accurate clocks possible. [86] [87]


The development of atomic clocks has led to many scientific and technological advances such as a system of precise global and regional navigation satellite systems, and applications in the Internet, which depend critically on frequency and time standards. Atomic clocks are installed at sites of time signal radio transmitters. They are used at some long wave and medium wave broadcasting stations to deliver a very precise carrier frequency.[ citation needed ] Atomic clocks are used in many scientific disciplines, such as for long-baseline interferometry in radioastronomy. [88]

The Global Positioning System (GPS) operated by the US Air Force Space Command provides very accurate timing and frequency signals. A GPS receiver works by measuring the relative time delay of signals from a minimum of four, but usually more, GPS satellites, each of which has at least two onboard caesium and as many as two rubidium atomic clocks. The relative times are mathematically transformed into three absolute spatial coordinates and one absolute time coordinate. [89] GPS Time (GPST) is a continuous time scale and theoretically accurate to about 14 ns. [90] However, most receivers lose accuracy in the interpretation of the signals and are only accurate to 100 ns. [91] [92] The GPST is related to but differs from TAI (International Atomic Time) and UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). GPST remains at a constant offset with TAI (TAI – GPST = 19 seconds) and like TAI does not implement leap seconds. Periodic corrections are performed to the on-board clocks in the satellites to keep them synchronized with ground clocks. [93] [94] The GPS navigation message includes the difference between GPST and UTC. As of July 2015, GPST is 17 seconds ahead of UTC because of the leap second added to UTC on 30 June 2015. [95] [96] Receivers subtract this offset from GPS Time to calculate UTC and specific timezone values.

The GLObal NAvigation Satellite System (GLONASS) operated by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces provides an alternative to the Global Positioning System (GPS) system and is the second navigational system in operation with global coverage and of comparable precision. GLONASS Time (GLONASST) is generated by the GLONASS Central Synchroniser and is typically better than 1,000 ns. [97] Unlike GPS, the GLONASS time scale implements leap seconds, like UTC. [98]

Space Passive Hydrogen Maser used in ESA Galileo satellites as a master clock for an onboard timing system ESA Galileo Passive Hydrogen Maser.jpg
Space Passive Hydrogen Maser used in ESA Galileo satellites as a master clock for an onboard timing system

The Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System is operated by the European GNSS Agency and European Space Agency and is near to achieving full operating global coverage. Galileo started offering global Early Operational Capability (EOC) on 15 December 2016, providing the third and first non-military operated Global Navigation Satellite System, and is expected to reach Full Operational Capability (FOC) in 2019. [99] [100] To achieve Galileo's FOC coverage constellation goal 6 planned extra satellites need to be added. Galileo System Time (GST) is a continuous time scale which is generated on the ground at the Galileo Control Centre in Fucino, Italy, by the Precise Timing Facility, based on averages of different atomic clocks and maintained by the Galileo Central Segment and synchronised with TAI with a nominal offset below 50 ns. [101] [102] [103] [100] According to the European GNSS Agency Galileo offers 30 ns timing accuracy. [104] The March 2018 Quarterly Performance Report by the European GNSS Service Centre reported the UTC Time Dissemination Service Accuracy was ≤ 7.6 ns, computed by accumulating samples over the previous 12 months and exceeding the ≤ 30 ns target. [105] [106] Each Galileo satellite has two passive hydrogen maser and two rubidium atomic clocks for onboard timing. [107] [108] The Galileo navigation message includes the differences between GST, UTC and GPST (to promote interoperability). [109] [110]

The BeiDou-2/BeiDou-3 satellite navigation system is operated by the China National Space Administration and is also near to achieving full-scale global coverage. BeiDou Time (BDT) is a continuous time scale starting at 1 January 2006 at 0:00:00 UTC and is synchronised with UTC within 100 ns. [111] [112] BeiDou became operational in China in December 2011, with 10 satellites in use, [113] and began offering services to customers in the Asia-Pacific region in December 2012. [114] On 27 December 2018 the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System started to provide global services with a reported timing accuracy of 20 ns. [115] The BeiDou global navigation system should be finished by 2020. [116]

Time signal radio transmitters

A radio clock is a clock that automatically synchronizes itself by means of government radio time signals received by a radio receiver. Many retailers market radio clocks inaccurately as atomic clocks; [117] although the radio signals they receive originate from atomic clocks, they are not atomic clocks themselves. Normal low cost consumer grade receivers solely rely on the amplitude-modulated time signals and use narrow band receivers (with 10 Hz bandwidth) with small ferrite loopstick antennas and circuits with non optimal digital signal processing delay and can therefore only be expected to determine the beginning of a second with a practical accuracy uncertainty of ± 0.1 second. This is sufficient for radio controlled low cost consumer grade clocks and watches using standard-quality quartz clocks for timekeeping between daily synchronization attempts, as they will be most accurate immediately after a successful synchronization and will become less accurate from that point forward until the next synchronization. [118] Instrument grade time receivers provide higher accuracy. Such devices incur a transit delay of approximately 1 ms for every 300 kilometres (186 mi) of distance from the radio transmitter. Many governments operate transmitters for time-keeping purposes.

See also

Related Research Articles

Hertz SI unit for frequency

The hertz (symbol: Hz) is the derived unit of frequency in the International System of Units (SI) and is defined as one cycle per second. It is named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the first person to provide conclusive proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves. Hertz are commonly expressed in multiples: kilohertz (103 Hz, kHz), megahertz (106 Hz, MHz), gigahertz (109 Hz, GHz), terahertz (1012 Hz, THz), petahertz (1015 Hz, PHz), exahertz (1018 Hz, EHz), and zettahertz (1021 Hz, ZHz).

Second SI unit of time

The second is the base unit of time in the International System of Units (SI), commonly understood and historically defined as ​186400 of a day – this factor derived from the division of the day first into 24 hours, then to 60 minutes and finally to 60 seconds each. Analog clocks and watches often have sixty tick marks on their faces, representing seconds, and a "second hand" to mark the passage of time in seconds. Digital clocks and watches often have a two-digit seconds counter. The second is also part of several other units of measurement like meters per second for velocity, meters per second per second for acceleration, and per second for frequency.

Caesium standard

The caesium standard is a primary frequency standard in which the photon absorption by transitions between the two hyperfine ground states of caesium-133 atoms are used to control the output frequency. The first caesium clock was built by Louis Essen in 1955 at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK. and promoted worldwide by Gernot M. R. Winkler of the USNO.

Rubidium standard

A rubidium standard or rubidium atomic clock is a frequency standard in which a specified hyperfine transition of electrons in rubidium-87 atoms is used to control the output frequency. It is the most inexpensive, compact, and widely produced atomic clock, used to control the frequency of television stations, cell phone base stations, in test equipment, and global navigation satellite systems like GPS. Commercial rubidium clocks are less accurate than caesium atomic clocks, which serve as primary frequency standards, so the rubidium clock is a secondary frequency standard.

Radio clock type of clock which self-synchronizes its time using dedicated radio transmitters

A radio clock or radio-controlled clock (RCC) is a clock or watch that is automatically synchronized to a time code transmitted by a radio transmitter connected to a time standard such as an atomic clock. Such a clock may be synchronized to the time sent by a single transmitter, such as many national or regional time transmitters, or may use the multiple transmitters used by satellite navigation systems such as GPS. Such systems may be used to automatically set clocks or for any purpose where accurate time is needed. RC clocks may include any feature available for a clock, such as alarm function, display of ambient temperature and humidity, broadcast radio reception, etc.

The Primary Atomic Reference Clock in Space or PARCS was an atomic-clock mission scheduled to fly on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2008, but cancelled to make way for the Vision for Space Exploration. The mission, to have been funded by NASA, involved a laser-cooled caesium atomic clock, and a time-transfer system using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. PARCS was to fly concurrently with the Superconducting Microwave Oscillator (SUMO) a different type of clock that was to be compared against the PARCS clock to test certain theories. The objectives of the mission were to have been:


NIST-F1 is a cesium fountain clock, a type of atomic clock, in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, and serves as the United States' primary time and frequency standard. The clock took less than four years to test and build, and was developed by Steve Jefferts and Dawn Meekhof of the Time and Frequency Division of NIST's Physical Measurement Laboratory.

NIST-7 atomic clock

NIST-7 was the atomic clock used by the United States from 1993 to 1999. It was one of a series of Atomic Clocks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The caesium beam clock served as the nation's primary time and frequency standard during that time period, but it has since been replaced with the more accurate NIST-F1, a caesium fountain atomic clock that neither gains nor loses one second in 100 million years.

Chip-scale atomic clock

A chip scale atomic clock (CSAC) is a compact, low-power atomic clock fabricated using techniques of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and incorporating a low-power semiconductor laser as the light source. The first CSAC physics package was demonstrated at NIST in 2003, based on an invention made in 2001. The work was funded by the US Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with the goal of developing a microchip-sized atomic clock for use in portable equipment. In military equipment it is expected to provide improved location and battlespace situational awareness for dismounted soldiers when the global positioning system is not available, but many civilian applications are also envisioned. Commercial manufacturing of these atomic clocks began in 2011. The CSAC, the world's smallest atomic clock, is 4 x 3.5 x 1 cm in size, weighs 35 grams, consumes only 115 mW of power, and can keep time to within 100 microseconds per day after several years of operation.


NIST-F2 is a caesium fountain atomic clock that, along with NIST-F1, serves as the United States' primary time and frequency standard. NIST-F2 was brought online on 3 April 2014.

Atomic fountain cloud of atoms that is tossed upwards by lasers in the Earths gravitational field

An atomic fountain is a cloud of atoms that is tossed upwards in the Earth's gravitational field by lasers. If it were visible, it would resemble the water in a fountain. While weightless in the toss, the atoms are measured to set the frequency of an atomic clock.

A conventional electrical unit is a unit of measurement in the field of electricity which is based on the so-called "conventional values" of the Josephson constant and the von Klitzing constant agreed by the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) in 1988. These units are very similar in scale to their corresponding SI units, but are not identical because of their different definition. They are distinguished from the corresponding SI units by setting the symbol in italic typeface and adding a subscript "90" – e.g., the conventional volt has the symbol V90 – as they came into international use on 1 January 1990.

Time in physics fundamental quantity in physics

Time in physics is defined by its measurement: time is what a clock reads. In classical, non-relativistic physics it is a scalar quantity and, like length, mass, and charge, is usually described as a fundamental quantity. Time can be combined mathematically with other physical quantities to derive other concepts such as motion, kinetic energy and time-dependent fields. Timekeeping is a complex of technological and scientific issues, and part of the foundation of recordkeeping.

A quantum clock is a type of atomic clock with laser cooled single ions confined together in an electromagnetic ion trap. Developed in 2010 by National Institute of Standards and Technology physicists, the clock was 37 times more precise than the then-existing international standard. The quantum logic clock is based on an aluminium spectroscopy ion with a logic atom.

GPS disciplined oscillator

A GPS clock, or GPS disciplined oscillator (GPSDO), is a combination of a GPS receiver and a high-quality, stable oscillator such as a quartz or rubidium oscillator whose output is controlled to agree with the signals broadcast by GPS or other GNSS satellites. GPSDOs work well as a source of timing because the satellite time signals must be accurate in order to provide positional accuracy for GPS in navigation. These signals are accurate to nanoseconds and provide a good reference for timing applications.

Length measurement is implemented in practice in many ways. The most commonly used approaches are the transit-time methods and the interferometer methods based upon the speed of light. For objects such as crystals and diffraction gratings, diffraction is used with X-rays and electron beams. Measurement techniques for three-dimensional structures very small in every dimension use specialized instruments such as ion microscopy coupled with intensive computer modeling.

Jun Ye chinese-american physicits

Jun Ye is a Chinese-American physicist at JILA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, working primarily in the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics.

Patrick Gill (scientist) British physicist, Senior Fellow in Time & Frequency at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL)

Patrick Gill, is a Senior NPL Fellow in Time & Frequency at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK.


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