The controlling radio signal for the National Physical Laboratory‘s atomic clock is transmitted on the MSF 60kHz signal via the transmitter at , CumbriaAnthorn, operated by British Telecom. This radio atomic clock time signal should have a range of some 1,500 km or 937.5 miles. All of the British Isles are of course within this radius.
The National Physical Laboratory’s role as keeper of the national time standards is to ensure that the UK time-scale agrees with Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) to the highest levels of accuracy and to make that time available across the UK. As an example, the MSF (MSF being the three-letter call sign to identify the source of the signal) radio broadcast provides the time signal for, electronic share trading, the clocks at most railway stations and for BT’s speaking clock.
DCF atomic clock receiver
The controlling radio signal for the German clock is transmitted via long wave from the DCF 77kHz transmitter at Mainflinger, near Dieburg, some 25 km south east of Frankfurt – the transmitter of German National Time Standards. It is similar in operation to the Cumbria transmitter, however there are two antennas (radio masts) so the radio atomic clock time signal can be maintained at all times.
Long wave is the preferred radio frequency for transmitting radio atomic clock time code binary signals as it performs most consistently in the stable lower part of the ionosphere. This is because the long wave signal carrying the time code to your timepiece travels in two ways; directly and indirectly. Between 700 km (437.5 miles) to 900 km (562.5 miles) of each transmitter the carrier wave can travel directly to the timepiece. The radio signal also reaches the timepiece via being bounced off the underside of the ionosphere. During the hours of daylight a part of the ionosphere called the “D layer” at an altitude of some 70 km (43.75 miles) is responsible for reflecting the long wave radio signal. During the hours of darkness when the sun’s radiation is not acting from outside the atmosphere, this layer rises to an altitude of some 90 km (56.25 miles) becoming the “E layer” in the process. Simple trigonometry will show that signals thus reflected will travel further.
A large part of the European Union area is covered by this transmitter facilitating reception for those who travel widely in Europe. The German clock is set on Central European Time – one hour ahead of U.K. time, following an inter-governmental decision, from the 22nd October, 1995, U.K. time will always be 1 hour less than European Time with both the U.K. and mainland Europe advancing and retarding clocks at the same “time”.
WVVB atomic clock receiver
A radio atomic clock system is available in North America set up and operated by NIST – the National Institute of Standards and Technology, located in Fort Collins, Colorado.
WWVB has high transmitter power (50,000 watts), a very efficient antenna and an extremely low frequency (60,000 Hz). For comparison, a typical AM radio station broadcasts at a frequency of 1,000,000 Hz. The combination of high power and low frequency gives the radio waves from MSF a lot of bounce, and this single station can therefore cover the entire continental United States plus much of Canada and Central America.
The radio atomic clock time codes are sent from WWVB using one of the simplest systems possible, and at a very low data rate of one bit per second. The 60,000 Hz signal is always transmitted, but every second it is significantly reduced in power for a period of 0.2, 0.5 or 0.8 seconds:
• 0.2 seconds of reduced power means a binary zero • 0.5 seconds of reduced power is a binary one. • 0.8 seconds of reduced power is a separator.
The time code is sent in BCD (Binary Coded Decimal) and indicates minutes, hours, day of the year and year, along with information about daylight savings time and leap years. The time is transmitted using 53 bits and 7 separators, and therefore takes 60 seconds to transmit.
A clock or watch can contain an extremely small and relatively simple radio atomic clock antenna and receiver to decode the information in the signal and set the atomic clock time accurately. All that you have to do is set the time zone, and the atomic clock will display the correct time.