New atomic clock is accurate out to 300 million years

Time may be real or illusory, and it's certainly relative, but regardless of any of that, thanks to scientists working at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Time (NIST), we now know how to measure it more accurately than we ever have before.

The new atomic clock produced by the NIST scientists, called NIST-F2, which is now the official time standard for the United States, is so accurate that you could run it for 300 million years before it either lost or gained a second. That translates to an accuracy of 10 trillionths of a second per day, or three times more accurate than the atomic clock that's been setting the U.S. time standard since 1999.

That may seem pretty excessive, but measuring time that accurately is actually pretty important to our daily lives.

"Most people don't realize it, but we all rely on the exquisite precision of atomic clocks for much of the technology we use every day," Tom O'Brian, the chief of the Time and Frequency Division at NIST, said during a press conference on Thursday. According to him, modern telecommunications and computer network systems, as well as electric power grids, all require synchronization to about 1 millionth of a second per day. GPS tracking needs to be even more accurate, down to about 1 billionth of a second per day.

This level of accuracy was achieved by using a special new system to cool and manipulate cesium atoms in such a way that we can use their natural resonance frequency to define exactly what a second is. Steve Jefferts, the NIST project leader that led the efforts to develop NIST-F2, talks about the new atomic clock, and exactly how they went about achieving this, in this video:

Although this pushes our accuracy of measuring time even further, and it will help in the use of the technologies we have today, there's another reason why this development was necessary. There is a next 'level' of accuracy that's being developed — using what are called 'optical' clocks — which are going to mean the end the using cesium as the standard we measure the second by, and the start of using a new "optical standard," as Jefferts called it in the press conference. Since these optical clocks are going to give us a 100-fold increase in accuracy over what we've had up until now, we need to develop as accurate a standard as we can with cesium before we make that transition, just to give us a way to properly define that new standard.

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Also, from the way it sounds, we probably don't have very long before we're going to need this new standard.

"Here at NIST and at other places around the world, we have atomic clocks that are already more precise than NIST-F2," O'Brian said in the news conference. "Now these are research clocks, they're not anywhere near ready to serve as official timekeeping devices yet, but they will be in the future. So, even while we're celebrating this great achievement by Steve Jefferts and his colleagues in making the most accurate clock in the world, one of the burdens of being an atomic clock scientist is that you're aware that the competition is always sort of ahead of you all the time. That's exciting as well."

(Image courtesy: Getty)

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