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A Record-Breaking Clock Won’t Lose a Second For Another 15 Billion Years

Strontium atomic clocks could eventually help scientists map the Earth’s shape

(Marti/JILA)
smithsonian.com

Scientists have developed a record-breaking clock so precise, it won’t lose a second for another 15 billion years.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced new modifications to their strontium atomic clock, a super-precise clock they’ve managed to make even better using calculations that reduced errors even more. The improved time keeper relies on strontium atoms held in an “optical lattice” only 30 micrometers square. These atoms “tick” between two electronic energy levels at a rate of 430 trillion per second. When the atoms vibrate, the micromovements are sensed by a red laser, allowing the device to tell time.

Lest you think a few technical modifications to what was already the world’s most accurate clock are just icing on the cake, think again. The new configuration has made the clock 50 percent more stable and three times as precise. And it could have a future use making not just our measurements of time more precise, but also our 3D maps of the Earth. NIST’s Jun Ye says that they might soon be able to use the clock for something called "relativistic geodesy," a technique for measuring the shape of the Earth using a set of clocks that can sense gravity. Ye says that the team can now measure shifts in the force of gravity when the clock is raised just two centimeters off the ground. Once they can do the same thing at just a centemeter above the Earth, she says they'll be able to map the planet extremely precisely.

With the new modifications, NIST scientists estimate that the clock shouldn’t lose or gain a second for a length of time that’s equal to the age of our universe. That’s pretty accurate—especially when you consider that the first “accurate” atomic clock lost a second every 300 years.

(H/T Gizmodo)

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