This article discusses the development of atomic clocks, why accuracy is so important, how they developed and the next generation of atomic clocks that offer increased accuracy.
Atomic clocks have been with us for over fifty years now and most people have heard of them and know they are very accurate, but how accurate are they and why do we need such accurate clocks?
Atomic clocks are used by many of us even if we are not aware of it. The time they tell is relayed around the world and picked up by time servers using the protocol NTP to synchronise networks, they are vital for lots of technologies, such as global satellite navigation, and TV signal timings.
Before the development of the atomic clock the most precise timekeeping devices were electronic clocks which would lose a second or two every week. These had largely replaced mechanical clocks which were less accurate still.
Mankind has always had a fascination for keeping track of the time but knowing the precise time has never been too important. A second or even a minute’s difference does not affect our day-to-day lives.
However, as technology has advanced the need for more precise timekeeping has increased. Satellites that have to be navigated and communicate with the Earth from hundred, thousands and even millions of miles away require exact timing. Light and therefore radio waves can travel 300,000 km every second so slight inaccuracies in time can have massive differences.
The first accurate atomic clock was built y Britain’s National Physical Laboratory in 1955 by Dr Louis Essen who based his clock around the oscillation of the caesium -133 atom. The idea was actually first conceived as far back as 1879 when Lord Kelvin proposed that time-keeping based on how atoms behaved would be a better way to count time intervals than anything else.
The first generation of atomic clocks (also known as caesium oscillators) used the frequency of this atom which oscillates 9,192,631,770 times every second. Essen’s model was accurate to a second every 300 years but developments of the caesium oscillator mean they can now achieve accuracies of one second every 80 million years.
Yet as technologies get more advanced, scientists strive to make better and more accurate clocks. Rubidium standard clocks offer no better accuracy than caesium models but are smaller and cost less (caesium oscillators are generally only to be found in large-scale physics laboratories).
Clocks using just a single atom have been developed that offer even more accuracy. A clock based on a single mercury atom has achieved accuracies of one second in 400 million years and it is expected that a new type of strontium clock that uses light will go even better.
The future for atomic clocks is ever increasing accuracy combined with scaling down the size and cost of them. The American National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have unveiled a chip-sized atomic clock that boasts millisecond accuracy.
Atomic clocks are now part and parcel of our lives without the time signals they transmit to the world that are picked up by NTP servers modern communication from Internet shopping and GPS and technological advances such as satellite navigation would become impossible.