How the U.S. Built The World’s Most Ridiculously Accurate Atomic Clock

Throw out that lame old atomic clock that’s only accurate to a few tens of quadrillionths of a second. The U.S. has introduced a new atomic clock that is three times more accurate than previous devices.

Atomic clocks are responsible for synchronizing time for much of our technology, including electric power grids, GPS, and the watch on your iPhone.

On Apr. 3, the National Institute of Standards and Technology () in Boulder, ColoNISTrado officially launched their newest standard for measuring time using the NIST-F2 atomic clock, which has been under development for more than a decade.

NIST-F2 is accurate to one second in 300 million years,” said Thomas O’Brian, who heads NIST’s time and frequency division, during a press conference April 3.

The clock was recently certified by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures as the world’s most accurate time standard.

The advancement is more than just a feather in the cap for metrology nerds. Precise timekeeping underpins much of our modern world.

GPS, for instance, needs accuracy of about a billionth of a second in order to keep you from getting lost. These satellites rely on high precision coming from atomic clocks at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

GPS, in turn, is used for synchronizing digital networks such as cell phones and the NTP servers that provide the backbone of the internet.

Your smartphone doesn’t display the time to the sixteenth decimal place, but it still relies on the frequency standards coming from NIST’s clocks, which make their measurements while living in a tightly controlled lab environment.

Real world clocks must operate under strained conditions such as temperature swings, significant vibration, or changing magnetic fields that degrade and hamper their accuracy.

It’s important then that the ultimate reference standard has much better performance than the real world technologies.

What will we do once we reach the ability to break down time into super-tiny, hyper-accurate units? Nobody knows.

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