Category: atomic clocks

Technologies that rely on Atomic Clocks (Part 2)

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GPS is not the only technology that is dependent on atomic clocks. The high levels of accuracy that are supplied by atomic clocks are used in other crucial technologies that we take for granted everyday.

Air traffic Control Not only are all aeroplanes and airliners now equipped with GPS to enable pilots and ground staff to know their exact location but atomic clocks are also used by air traffic controllers who need precise and accurate measurements and time between planes.

Traffic Lights and Road Congestion Systems – Traffic lights are another system that relies on atomic clock timing. Accuracy and synchronization is vital for traffic light systems as small errors in synchronization could lead to fatal accidents.

Congestion cameras and other systems such as parking metres also use atomic clocks as a basis of their timekeeping as this prevents any legal issues when issuing penalty notices.

CCTV – Closed circuit television is another large scale user of atomic clocks. CCTV cameras are often used in the fight against crime but as evidence they are ineffective in a court of law unless the timing information on the CCTV camera can be proved to be accurate. Failure to do so could lead to criminals escaping prosecution because despite the identification by the camera, proof that it was at the time and date of the offence can’t be clarified without accuracy and synchronization.

Internet – Many of the applications we now entrust to the internet are only made possible thanks to atomic clocks. Online trading, internet banking and even online auction houses all need accurate and synchronized time.

Imagine taking your savings from your bank account only finding that you can withdraw them again because another computer has a slower clock or imagine bidding on an internet auction site only to have your bid rejected by a bid that came before yours because it was made on a computer with a slower clock.

Using atomic clocks as a source for time is relatively straight forward for many technologies. Radio signals and even the GPS transmissions can be used as a source of atomic clock time and for computer systems, the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) will ensure any sized network will be synchronized perfectly together. Dedicated NTP time servers are used throughout the world in technologies and applications that require precise time.

Technologies that rely on Atomic Clocks (Part 1)

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Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping devices known to man. There accuracy is incomparable to other clocks and chronometers in that whilst even the most sophisticated electronic clock will drift by a second every week or two, the most modern atomic clocks can keep running for thousands of years and not lose even a fraction of a second.

The accuracy of an atomic clock is down to what they use as their basis for time measurement. Instead of relying on an electronic current running through a crystal like an electronic clock, an atomic clock uses the hyperfine transition of an atom in two energy states. Whilst this may sound complicated, it is just an unfaltering reverberation that ‘ticks’ over 9 billion times each second, every second.

But why such accuracy really necessary and what technologies are atomic clocks employed in?

It is by examining the technologies that utilise atomic clocks that we can see why such high levels of accuracy are required.

GPS – Satellite navigation

Satellite navigation is a huge industry now. Once just a technology for the military and aviators, GPS satellite navigation is now used by road users across the globe. However, the navigational information provided by satellite navigation systems like GPS is solely reliant on the accuracy of atomic clocks.

GPS works by triangulating several timing signals that are deployed from atomic clocks onboard the GPS satellites. By working out when the timing signal was released from the satellite the satellite navigational receiver can just how far away it is from the satellite and by using multiple signals calculate where it is in the world.

Because of these timing signals travel at the speed of light, just one second inaccuracy within the timing signals could lead to the positing information being thousands of miles out. It is testament to the accuracy of GPS atomic clocks that currently a satellite navigation receiver is accurate to within five metres.

MSF Downtime on March 11

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The National Physical Laboratory has announced scheduled maintenance this week (Thursday) meaning the MSF60kHz time and frequency signal will be temporarily turned off to allow the maintenance to be conducted in safety at the Anthorn radio Station in Cumbria.

Normally these scheduled maintenance periods only last a few hours and should not cause any disturbance to anybody relying on the MSF signal for timing applications.
NTP (Network Time Protocol) is well suited to these temporary losses of signal and little if no drift should be experienced by any NTP time server user.

However, there are some high level users of network time servers or may have concerns on the accuracy of their technology during these scheduled periods of no signal. There is another solution for ensuring a continuous, secure and equally accurate time signal is always being used.

GPS, most commonly used for navigation and wayfinding it actually an atomic clock based technology. Each of the GPS satellites broadcasts a signal from their onboard atomic clock which is used by satellite navigation devices that work out the location through triangulation.

These GPS signals can also be received by a GPS NTP time server. Just as MSF or other radio signal time servers receive the external signal from the Anthorn transmitter, GPS time servers can receive this accurate and external signal from the satellites.

Unlike the radio broadcasts, GPS should never go down although it can sometimes be impractical to receive the signal as a GPS antenna needs a clear view of the sky and therefore should preferably be on the roof.

For those wanting to make doubly sure there is never a period when a signal is not being received by the NTP server, a dual time server can be used. These pick up both radio and GPS transmissions and the onboard NTP daemon calculates the most accurate time from them both.

The Vulnerability of GPS

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An increase in GPS ‘attacks’ has been causing some concern amongst the scientific community.  GPS, whilst a highly accurate and reliable system of transmitting time and positing information, relies on very weak signals that are being hampered by interference from the Earth.

Both unintentional interference such as from pirate radio stations or intentional deliberate ‘jamming’ by criminals is still rare but as technology that can hamper GPS signals becomes more readily available, the situation is expected to get worse.

And while the effects of signal failure of the GPS system may have obvious results for people who use it for navigation (ending up in the wrong location or getting lost) it could have more serious and profound repercussions for the technologies that rely on GPS for time signals.

As so many technologies now rely on GPS timing signals from telephone networks, the internet, banking and traffic lights and even our power grid any signal failure no matter how briefly, could cause serious problems.

The main problem with the GPS signal is that it is very weak and as it comes from space bound satellites, little can be done to boost the signal so any similar frequency being broadcast in a local area can easily drown out GPS.

However, GPS is not the only accurate and secure method of receiving the time from an atomic clock source. Many national physics laboratories from across the globe broadcast atomic clock signals via radio waves (usually long wave). In the USA these signals are broadcast by NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time (known as WWVB) whilst in the UK, it’s MSF signal is broadcast by NPL (National Physical Laboratory).

Dual time servers that can receive both signals are available and are a safer bet for any high technology company that can’t afford to risk losing a time signal.

Quantum Atomic Clocks The precision of the future

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The atomic clock is not a recent invention. Developed in the 1950’s, the traditional caesium based atomic clock has been providing us with accurate time for half a century.

The caesium atomic clock has become the foundation of our time – literally. The International System of Units (SI) define a second as a certain number of oscillations of the atom caesium and atomic clocks govern many of the technologies that we live with an use on a daily basis: The internet, satellite navigation, air traffic control and traffic lights to name but a few.

However, recent developments in optical quantum clocks that use single atoms of metals like aluminium or strontium are thousands of times more accurate than traditional atomic clocks. To put this in perspective, the best caesium atomic clock as used by institutes like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) or NPL (National Physical Laboratory) to govern the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), is accurate to within a second every 100 million years. However, these new quantum optical clocks are accurate to a second every 3.4 billion years – almost as long as the earth is old.

For most people, their only encounter with an atomic clock is receiving its time signal is a network time server or NTP device (Network Time Protocol) for the purposes of synchronising devices and networks and these atomic clock signals are generated using caesium clocks.

And until the world’s scientists can agreed on a single atom to replace caesium and a single clock design for keeping UTC, none of us will be able to take advantage of this incredible accuracy.

Network Time Protocol and Computer Time Synchronization

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Ask any network administrator or IT engineer and ask them how important network time synchronization is and you’ll normally get the same answer – very.

Time is used in almost all aspects of computing for logging when events have happened. In fact timestamps are the only reference a computer can use to keep tracks of tasks it has done and those that it has yet to do.

When networks are unsynchronized the result can be a real headache for anybody tasked with debugging them. Data can be often lost, applications fail to commence, error logging is next to impossible, not to mention the security vulnerabilities that can result if there is no synchronized network time.

NTP (Network Time Protocol) is the leading time synchronisation application having been around since the 1980’s. It has been constantly developed and is used by virtually every computer network that requires accurate time.

Most operating systems have a version of NTP already installed and using it to synchronise a single computer is relatively straight forward by using the options in the clock settings or task bar.

However, by using the inbuilt NTP application or daemon on a computer will result in the device using a source of internet time as a timing reference. This is all well and good for single desk top machines but on a network a more secure solution is required.

It is vital on any computer network that there are no vulnerabilities in the firewall which can lead to attacks from malicious users. Keeping a port open to communicate with an internet timing source is one method an attacker can use to enter a network.

Fortunately there are alternatives to using the internet as a timing source. Atomic clock time signals can be received using long wave radio or GPS transmissions.

Dedicated NTP time server devices are available that make the process of time synchronisation extremely easy as the NTP servers receives the time (externally to the firewall) and can then distribute to all machines on a network – this is done securely and accurately with most networks synchronised to an NTP server working to within a few milliseconds of each other.

Atomic Clocks Now Doubled in Precision

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As with the advance of computer technology that seems to exponentially increase in capability every year, atomic clocks too seem to increase dramatically in their accuracy year on year.

Now, those pioneers of atomic clock technology, the US National Institute of Standards Time (NIST), have announced they have managed to produce an atomic clock with accuracy twice that of any clocks that have gone before.

The clock is based in a single aluminium atom and NIST claim it can remain accurate without losing a second in over 3.7 billion years (about the same length of time that life has existed Earth).

The previous most accurate clock was devised by the German Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) and was an optical clock based on a strontium atom and was accurate to a second in over a billion years. This new atomic clock by NIST is also an optical clock but is based on aluminium atoms, which according to NIST’s research with this clock, is far more accurate.

Optical clocks use lasers to hold atoms still and differ to the traditional atomic clocks used by computer networks using NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) and other technologies which are based on fountain clocks. Not only do these traditional fountain clocks use Caesium as their time keeping atom but instead of lasers they use super-cooled liquids and vacuums to control the atoms.

Thanks to work by NIST, PTB and the UK’s NPL (National Physical Laboratory) atomic clocks continue to advance exponentially, however, these new optical atomic clocks based on atoms like aluminium, mercury and strontium are a long way from being used as a basis for UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC is governed by a constellation of caesium fountain clocks that while still accurate to a second in 100,000 years are by far less precise than these optical clocks and are based on technology over fifty years old. And unfortunately until the world’s science community can agree on an atom and clock design to be used internationally, these precise atomic clocks will remain a play thing of the scientific community only.

The Atomic Clock Scientific Precision

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Precision is becoming increasingly important in modern technologies and none more so than accuracy in time keeping. From the internet to satellite navigation, precise and accurate synchronicity is vital in the modern age.

In fact many of the technologies that we take for granted in today’s world, would not be possible if it wasn’t for the most accurate machines invented – the atomic clock.

Atomic clocks are just timekeeping devices like other clocks or watches. But what stands them apart is the accuracy they can achieve. As a crude example your standard mechanical clock, such as a town centre clock tower, will drift by as much as a second a day. Electronic clocks such as digital watches or clock radios are more accurate. These types of clock drift a second in about a week.

However, when you compare the precision of an atomic clock in which a second will not be lost or gained in 100,000 years or more the accuracy of these devices is incomparable.

Atomic clocks can achieve this accuracy by the oscillators they use. Nearly all types of clock have an oscillator. In general, an oscillator is just a circuit that regularly ticks.

Mechanical clocks use pendulums and springs to provide a regular oscillation while electronic clocks have a crystal (usually quartz) that when an electric current is run through, provides an accurate rhythm.

Atomic clocks use the oscillation of atoms during different energy states. Often caesium 133 (and sometimes rubidium) is used as its hyperfine transitional oscillation is over 9 billion times a second (9,192,631,770) and this never changes. In fact, the International System of Units (SI) now officially regards a second in time as 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation from the caesium atom.

Atomic clocks provide the basis for the world’s global timescale – UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). And computer networks all over the world stay in sync by using time signals broadcast by atomic clocks and picked up on NTP time servers (Network Time Server).

Network Time Protocol And Network Time Synchronization

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Synchronization of computer networks is something that many administrators take for granted. Dedicated network time servers can receive a time source and distribute it amongst a network, accurately, securely and precisely.

However, accurate time synchronization is only made possible thanks the time protocol NTP – Network Time Protocol.

NTP was developed when the internet was still in its infancy and Professor David Mills and his team from Delaware University were trying to synchronise the time on a network of a few machines. They developed the very earliest rendition of NTP which has continued to be developed to this very day, nearly thirty years after its first inception.

NTP was not then, and is not now, the only time synchronisation software, there are other applications and protocol that do a similar task but NTP is the most widely used (by far with over 98% of time synchronisation applications using it). It is also packaged with most modern operating systems with a version of NTP (usually SNTP – a simplified version) installed on the latest Windows 7 operating system.

NTP has played an important part in creating the internet we know and love today. Many online applications and tasks would not be possible without accurate time synchronization and NTP.

Online trading, internet auctions, banking and debugging of networks all rely on accurate time synchronisation. Even sending an email requires time synchronisation with email server – otherwise computers would not be able to handle emails coming from unsynchronised machines as they may arrive before they were sent.

NTP is a free software protocol and is available online from NTP.org However, most computer networks that require secure and accurate time mostly use dedicated NTP servers that operate external to the network and firewall obtaining the time from atomic clock signals ensuring millisecond accuracy with the world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

Using GPS as a source of Accurate Time

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The Global Positioning System (GPS) is an increasingly popular tool, used throughout the world as a source of wayfinding and navigation. However, there is much more to the GPS network than just satellite navigation as the transmissions broadcast by the GPS satellites can also be used as a highly accurate source of time.

GPS satellites are actually just orbiting clocks as each one contains atomic clocks that generate a time signal. It is the time signal that is broadcast by the GPS satellites that satellite navigation receivers in cars and planes use to work out distance and position.

Positioning is only possible because thee time signals are so accurate. Vehicle sat navs for instance use the signals from four orbiting satellites and triangulate the information to work out the position. However, if there is just one second inaccuracy with one of the time signals then the positing information could be thousands of miles out – proving useless.

It is testament to the accuracy of atomic clocks used to generate GPS signals that currently a GPS receiver can work out its position on earth to within five metres.

Because GPS satellites are so accurate, they make an ideal source of time to synchronise a computer network to. Strictly speaking GPS time differs from the international timescale UTC (coordinated Universal Time) as UTC has had additional leap seconds added to it to ensure parity with the earth’s rotation meaning it is exactly 18 seconds ahead of GPS but is easily converted by NTP the time synchronisation protocol (Network Time Protocol).

GPS time servers receive the GPS time signal via a GPS antenna which has to be placed on the roof to receive the line of sight transmissions. Once the GPS signal is received the NTP GPS time server will distribute the signal to all devices on the NTP network and corrects any drift on individual machines.

GPS time servers are dedicated easy to use devices and can ensure millisecond accuracy to UTC without any of the security risks involved in using an internet time source.