Atomic Clocks now Accurate to a Quintillionth of a Second?

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Development in clock accuracy seems to increase exponentially. From the early mechanical clocks, there were only accurate to about half an hour a day, to electronic clocks developed at the turn of the century that only drifted by a second. By the 1950’s, atomic clocks were developed that became accurate to thousandths of a second and year on year they have becoming ever more precise.

Currently, the most accurate atomic clock in existence, developed by NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) loses a second every 3.7 billion years; however, using new calculations researchers suggest they can now come up with a calculation that could lead to an atomic clock that would be so accurate it would lose a second only every 37 billion years (three times longer than the universe has been in existence).

This would make the atomic clock accurate to a quintillionth of a second (1,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second or 1x 1018). The new calculations that could aid the development of this sort of precision has been developed by studying the effects of temperature on the miniscule atoms and electrons that are used to keep the atomic clocks ‘ticking’. By working out the effects of variables like temperature, the researchers claim to be able to improve the accuracy of atomic clock systems; however, what possible uses does this accuracy have?

Atomic clock accuracy is becoming ever relevant in our high technology world. Not only do technologies like GPS and broadband data streams rely on precise atomic clock timing but studying physics and quantum mechanics requires high levels of accuracy enabling scientists to understand the origins of the universe.

To utilise an atomic clock time source, for precise technologies or computer network synchronisation, the simplest solution is to use a network time server; these devices receive a time stamp direct from an atomic clock source, such as GPS or radio signals broadcast by the likes of NIST or NPL (National Physical Laboratory).

These time servers use NTP (Network Time Protocol) to distribute the time around a network and ensure there is no drift, making it possible for your computer network to be kept accurate to within milliseconds of an atomic clock source.

Network Time Server

Keeping Track of Global Time

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So much business these days is conducted across borders, countries and continents. Global trade and communication is an important aspect for all sorts of industries, trades and businesses.

Of course, communicating across borders often means communicating across time zones too, and this poses problems for both people and computers. When those in United States start work, Europeans are half way through their day, while those in the Far East have gone to bed.

Knowing the time in several countries is, therefore, important for many people, but fortunately, many solutions exist to help.

Modern operating systems like Windows 7 have facilities that allow you to show several time zones on the computer clock, while web pages and apps such as:  https://www.worldtimebuddy.com offer an easy way to work out the different time across time zones.

Many offices use multiple analogue and digital wall clocks to provide staff with easy access to the time in important trade countries, sometimes these use atomic clock receivers to maintain perfect accuracy, but what about computers? How do they deal with different time zones?

The answer lies in the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC was developed following the invention of atomic clocks. Kept precise by a constellation of these super-accurate clocks, UTC is the same across the globe enabling computers to communicate effectively without the differences in time zones affecting functionality.

To ensure preciseness in communication, computer networks need an accurate source of UTC as system clocks are nothing more than quartz oscillators, which can drift by several seconds a day—a long time for computer communication.

A software protocol, NTP (Network Time Protocol) ensures that this time source is distributed around the network, maintaining its accuracy.

NTP servers receive the source of UTC, often from sources such as GPS or radio referenced signals broadcast by NPL in the UK (National Physical Laboratory—transits the MSF signal from Cumbria) or NIST in the USA (National Institute of Standards and Time—transmits the WWVB signal from Colorado).

With UTC and NTP time servers, computer networks across the globe can communicate precisely and error-free enabling trouble free computing and truly global communication.

NTP server

Differing Perceptions of Time

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When you tell somebody you’ll be an hour, ten minutes or a day, most people have a good idea how long they need to wait; however, not everybody has the same perception of time, and in fact, some people have no perception of time at all!

Scientists studying a newly discovered Amazonian tribe have found that they have no abstract concept of time, according to news reports.

The Amondawa, first contacted by the outside world in 1986, while recognising events occurring in time, do not recognise time as a separate concept, lacking the linguistic structures relating to time and space.

Not only do the Amondawa have no linguistic ability to describe time, but concepts like working throughout the night, would not be understood as time has no meaning to their lives.

While most of us in the western world tend to live by the clock, we all in fact have continuous different perceptions of time. Ever noticed how time flies when you’re having fun, or goes very slowly during times of boredom? Our time perceptions can vary greatly depending on the activities that we are undertaking.

Fighter pilots, Formula One drivers and other sportsmen often talk of “being in the zone” where time slows down. This is due to the intense concentration they are putting into their endeavours, slowing down their perceptions.

Regardless of out differing time perceptions, time itself can alter as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity demonstrated. Einstein suggested that gravity and intense speeds will alter time, with large planetary masses warping space-time slowing it down, while at very high speeds (close to the speed of light) space travellers could partake a journey that to observers would seem several thousands of years, but be just seconds to those travelling at such speeds.

And if Einstein’s theories seem far-fetched, it has been tested using ultra-precise atomic clocks. Atomic clocks on aeroplanes travelling around the Earth, or placed farther away from the Earth’s orbit, have minute differences to those remaining at sea-level or stationary on Earth.

Atomic clocks are useful tools for modern technologies and help to ensure that the global timescale, Universal Coordinated Time (UTC), is kept as accurate and true as possible. And you don’t need to own your own tomake sure your computer network is kept true to UTC and is hooked up to an atomic clock. NTP time servers enable all sorts of technologies to receive an atomic clock signal and keep as accurate as possible. You can even buy atomic clock wall clocks that can provide you the precise time no matter how much the day is “dragging” or “flying”.

 

 

October Launch Date for Europes Version of GPS

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The launch date for the first Galileo satellites, the European version of the Global Positioning System (GPS), has been scheduled for mid October, say the European Space Agency (ESA).

Two Galileo in-orbit validation (IOV) satellites will be launched using a modified Russian Soyus rocket this October, marking a milestone in the Galileo project’s development.

Originally scheduled for August, the delayed October launch will lift off from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana, South America, using the latest version of the Soyuz rocket—the world’s most reliable and most used rocket in history(Soyus was the rocket that propelled both Sputnik—the first orbital satellite—and Yuri Gargarin—the first man in orbit—into space).

Galileo, a joint European initiative, is set to rival the American controlled GPS, which is controlled by the United States military. With so many technologies reliant on satellite navigation and timing signals, Europe needs its own system in case the USA decides to switch off their civilian signal during times of emergency (war and terrorist attacks such as 9/11) leaving many technologies without the crucial GPS signal.

Currently GPS not only controls the words transportation syste3ms with shipping, airliners and motorists increasingly becoming reliant on it, but GPS also provides timing signals to technologies such as NTP servers, ensuring accurate and precise time.

And the Galileo system will be good for current GPS users too, as it will be interoperable and, therefore, will increase accuracy of the 30-year-old GPS network, which is in need of upgrade.

Currently, a prototype Galileo satellite, GIOVE-B, is in orbit and has been functioning perfectly for the last three years. Onboard the satellite, as with all global navigation satellite system (GNSS) including GPS, is an atomic clock, which is used to transmit a timing signal that Earth-based navigation systems can use to triangulate accurate positioning (by using multiple satellite signals).

The atomic clock aboard GIOVE-B is currently the most accurate atomic clock in orbit, and with similar technology intended for all Galileo satellite, this is the reason why the European system will be more accurate than GPS.

These atomic clock systems are also used by NTP servers, to receive an accurate and precise form of time, which many technologies are dependent on to ensure synchronicity and accuracy, including most of the world’s computer networks.

Keeping the World Synchronised A Brief History

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Global time synchronisation may seem like a modern need, we do after all live in a global economy. With the internet, global financial markets and computer networks separated by oceans and continents—keeping everybody running in synchronisation is a crucial aspect of the  modern world.

Yet, a need for global synchronicity began a lot earlier than the computer age. International standardisation of weights and measures began after the French revolution when the decimal system was introduced and a platinum rod and weight representing the metre and the kilogram were installed in the Archives de la République in Paris.

Paris eventually became the central head of the International System of Units, which was fine for weights and measures, as representatives from different countries could visit the vaults to calibrate their own base measurements; however, when it came to standardising time, with the increased use of transatlantic travel following the steamer, and then the aeroplane, things became tricky.

Back then, the only clocks were mechanical and pendulum driven. Not only would the base clock that was situated in Paris drift on a daily basis, but any traveller from the other side of the world wanting to synchronise to it, would have to visit Paris, check the time on the vault’s clock, and then carry their own clock back across the Atlantic—inevitable arriving with a clock that had drifted perhaps several minutes by the time the clock arrived back.

With the invention of the electronic clock, the aeroplane and transatlantic telephones, things became easier; however, even electronic clocks can drift several seconds in a day so the situation wasn’t perfect.

These days, thanks to the invention of the atomic clock, the SI standard of time (UTC: Coordinated Universal Time) has so little drift even a 100,000 years wouldn’t see the clock lose a second. And synchronising to UTC couldn’t be simpler no matter where you are in the world—thanks to NTP (Network Time Protocol) and NTP servers.

Now using GPS signals or transmissions put out by organisations like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time-WVBB broadcast) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory—MSF broadcast) and using NTP servers, ensuring you are synchronised to UTC is simple.

NTP servers like Galleon’s NTS 6001 GPS receive a atomic clock time signal and distributes it around a network keeping every device to within a few milliseconds of UTC.

 

Galleon's NTS 6001 GPS Time Server

Using NIST Time Servers

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The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) is one of the world’s leading atomic clock laboratories, and is the leading American time authority. Part of a constellation of national physics laboratories, NIST help ensure the worlds atomic clock time standard UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is kept accurate and is available for the American people to use as a time standard.

All sorts of technologies rely on UTC time. All the machines on a computer network are usually synchronised to source of UTC, while technologies such as ATM’s, closed-circuit television (CCTV) and alarm systems require a source of NIST time to prevent errors.

Part of what NIST does is to ensure that sources of UTC time are readily available for the technologies to utilise, and NIST offer several means of receiving their time standard.

The Internet

The internet is the easiest method of receiving NIST time and in most Windows based operating systems, the NIST time standard address is already included in the time and date settings, allowing easy synchronisation. If it isn’t, to synchronise to NIST you simply need to double click on the system clock (bottom right hand corner) and enter the NIST server name and address. A full list of NIST Internet servers, here:

The Internet, however, is not a particularly secure location to receive a source of NIST time. Any Internet time source will require and open port in the firewall (UDP port 123) for the time signal to get through. Obviously, any gap in a firewall can lead to security issues, so fortunately NIST provide another method of receiving their time.

NTP Time Servers

NIST, from their transmitter in Colorado, broadcasts a time signal that all of North America can receive. The signal, generated and kept true by NIST atomic clocks, is highly accurate, reliable and secure, received externally to the firewall by using a WWVB timeserver (WWVB is call sign for the NIST time signal).

Once received, the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) will use the NIST time code and distribute it around the network and will ensure each device keeps true to it, continually making adjustments to cope with drift.

WWVB NTP time servers are accurate, secure and reliable and a must-have for anybody serious about security and accuracy who wants to receive a source of NIST time.

Japan Loses Atomic Clock Signal after Quakes

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Having suffered earthquakes, a catastrophic tsunami, and a nuclear accident, Japan has had a terrible start to the year. Now, weeks after these terrible incidents, Japan is recovering, rebuilding their damaged infrastructure and trying to contain the emergencies at their stricken nuclear power plants.

But to add insult t injury, many of the Japanese technologies that rely on an accurate atomic clock signals are starting to drift, leading to problems with synchronisation. Like in the UK, Japan’s National Institute of Information, Communications and Technology broadcast an atomic clock time standard by radio signal.

Japan has two signals, but many Japanese NTP servers rely on the signal broadcast from mount Otakadoya, which is located 16 kilometres from the stricken Daiichi power station in Fukushima, and falls within the 20 km exclusion zone imposed when the plant started leaking.

The consequence is that technicians have been unable to attend to the time signal. According to the National Institute of Information, Communications, and Technology, which usually transmits the 40-kilohertz signal, broadcasts ceased a day after the massive Tohoku earthquake struck the region on 11 March. Officials at the institute said they have no idea when service might resume.

Radio signals that broadcast time standards can be susceptible to problems of this nature. These signals often experience outages for repair and maintenance, and the signals can be prone to interference.

As more and more technologies, rely on atomic clock timing, including most computer networks, this susceptibility can cause a lot of apprehension amongst technology managers and network administrators.

Fortunately, a less vulnerable system of receiving time standards is available that is just as accurate and is based on atomic clock time—GPS.

The Global Positioning System, commonly used for satellite navigation, contains atomic clock time information used to calculate positioning. These time signals are available everywhere on the planet with a view of the sky, and as it is space-based, the GPS signal is not susceptible to outages and incidents such as in Fukushima.

 

Importance of Time Synchronisation when Working in the Cloud

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Cloud computing has been foreseen as being the next big step in the development of information technology with more and more businesses and IT networks becoming cloud reliant and doing away with traditional methods.

The term ‘Cloud Computing’ refers to the use of on demand programs and services online including the storing of information over the internet, and using applications not installed on host machines.

Cloud computing mean that users no longer need to own, install and run software in individual machines, and doesn’t require large capacity storage. It also allows remote computing, enabling users to use the same services, work on the same documents, or access the network at any workstation able to log onto the cloud service.

While these advantages are appealing to businesses enabling them to lower IT costs while providing the same network capabilities, there are disadvantages to cloud computing.

Firstly, to work on the cloud you are reliant on a working network connection. If there is a problem with the line, whether in your locale or with the cloud service provider, you can’t work—even offline.

Secondly, peripherals such as printers and back up drives may not work properly on a cloud-orientated machine, and if you are using a non-specified computer, you won’t be able to access any network hardware unless the specific drivers and software are installed on the machine.

Lack of control is another issue. Being part of a cloud service means that you have to adhere to the terms and conditions of the cloud host, which may affect all sorts of issues such as data ownership and the number of users that can access the system.

Time synchronisation is essential for cloud services, with precise and accurate time needed to ensure that every device that connects to the cloud is logged accurately. Failure to ensure precise time could lead to data getting lost or the wrong version of a job overriding new versions.

To ensure precise time for cloud services, NTP time servers, receiving the time from an atomic clock, are used to maintain accurate and reliable time. A cloud service will essentially be governed by an atomic clock once it is synchronised to an NTP server, so no matter where users are in the world, the cloud service can ensure the correct time is logged preventing data loss and errors.

Galleon NTP server

Importance of the GPS Antenna

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The global positing system is one of the most used technologies in the modern world. So many people rely on the network for either satellite navigation or time synchronisation. The majority of road users now rely on some form of GPS or mobile phone navigation, and professional drivers are almost completely reliant on them.

And its not just navigation that GPS is useful for. Because GPS satellites contain atomic clocks—it is the time signals these clocks put out that are used by satellite navigation systems to accurately work out positioning—they are used as a primary source of time for a whole host of time sensitive technologies.

Traffic lights, CCTV networks, ATM machines and modern computer networks all need accurate sources of time to avoid drift and to ensure synchronicity.  Most modern technologies, such as computers, do contain internal time pieces but these are only simple quartz oscillators (similar type of clock as used in modern watches) and they can drift. Not only does this lead to the time slowly becoming inaccurate, when devices are hooked up together this drifting can leave machines unable to cooperate as each device may have  a different time.

This is where the GPS network comes in, as unlike other forms of accurate time sources, GPS is available anywhere on the planet, is secure (for a computer network it is received externally to the firewall) and incredibly accurate, but GPS does have one distinct disadvantage.

While available everywhere on the planet, the GPS signal is pretty weak and to obtain a signal, whether for time synchronisation or for navigation, a clear view of the sky is needed. For this reason, the GPS antenna is fundamental in ensuring you get a good quality signal.

As the GPS antenna has to go outdoors, it’s important that it s not only waterproof, able to operate in the rain and other weather elements, but also resistant to the variation in temperatures experienced throughout the year.

One of the leading causes of GPS NTP server failure (the time servers that receive GPS time signals and distribute them around a network using Network Time Protocol) is a failed or failing antenna, so ensuring you GPS antenna is waterproof, and resistant to seasonal temperature changes can eliminate the risk of future time signal failures.

Waterproof GPS Antenna