Atomic clock

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Atomic clocks are masers with attached equipment. National standards agencies maintain an accuracy of 1x10-9 seconds per day, and a precision equal to the frequency of the radio transmitter pumping the maser. The clocks maintain a continuous and stable time scale, atomic time. For civil time, another time scale is disseminated based on UTC: this is synchronized with the passing of day and night based on astronomical observations.

How they work

Frequency reference masers use glowing chambers of ionized gas, most often caesium, because that is now how the standard second is defined.

Since 1967, the International System of Units (SI) has defined the second as 9,192,631,770 cycles of the radiation which corresponds to the transition between two energy levels of the ground state of the Caesium-133 atom. This definition makes the caesium oscillator (often called an atomic clock) the primary standard for time and frequency measurements. Other physical quantities, like the volt and meter, rely on the definition of the second as part of their own definitions.

A microwave radio transmitter fills the chamber with a standing wave of radio waves. The cesium atoms absorb the radio waves and emit light. The radio waves make the electrons move farther from their nuclei. When the electrons are attracted back closer by the opposite charge of the nucleus, the electrons wiggle before they settle down in their new location. This moving charge causes the light, which is a wave of alternating electricity and magnetism.

A photocell looks at the light. When the light gets dimmer, electronics between the photocell and radio transmitter adjusts the frequency of the radio transmitter. This adjustment process is where most of the work and complexity of the clock lies. When a clock is first turned on, it takes a while for it to settle down before it can be trusted.

A counter counts the waves made by the radio transmitter. A computer reads the counter, and does math to convert the number to something that looks like a digital clock, or a radio wave that is transmitted. Of course, the real clock is the original counter.

Below two sections are largely U.S.-centric.

Public access:

The easiest method to access standard time is to listen to the news on radio. National radio news programs set their clocks to the transmissions from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. U.S. Government atomic clocks are available to the public at <> with a time-of day display accurate to about 0.3S. They also provide downloads of a program to set your computer's clock via the internet or a modem. If you lack a radio or computer, the clocks are also available by phone at 1-303-499-7111 (WWV) or 1-808-335-4363 (WWVH). GPS satellites each have a Caesium atomic clock on-board, rated from clocks on the ground. The time available on a GPS unit is exact, and some instrument-quality GPS units can serve as local time standards.

The NIST clocks are also available on longwave radio, station WWVB at 60KHz (binary coded decimal only) at 30,000W, and by shortwave radio stations WWV (Fort Collins Colorado) and WWVH (Kekepa on Kauai, Hawaii) at 2.5, 5, 10 and 15 Mhz at 20,000W and 10,000W respectively. The variety of frequencies helps reception no matter what the ionospheric weather. A binary coded decimal transmission is made once per second, and on the shortwave stations, a computerized voice announcement is made every ten seconds. The radio frequencies are set by the clocks and are a precision standard, useful for adjusting receivers. The shortwave broadcast information also includes standard time intervals, UT1 time corrections, geophysical alerts (e.g. tsunami warnings), marine storm warnings, and Global Positioning System (GPS) status reports.


If you need to rate a clock by distance: WWVB and WWV are located in Fort Collins, Colorado, about 100 kilometers north of Denver at approximately 40°40'49"Nx105°02'27"W. (The antennas are all at slightly different locations.) WWV's announcements are in a male voice. WWVH's time annoucements have a female voice. WWVH is located on Kauai Hawaii, near Kekaha, at about 21°59'16"Nx159°45'50"W.