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.