Is This the Most Precise Clock on the Planet?

New atomic timepiece could help with navigation

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 23, 2013 3:17 AM CDT

(Newser) – A new timepiece the size of a dining-room table is being hailed as perhaps the world's most precise: It's "like measuring time over a hundred years to a precision of several nanoseconds," says Andrew Ludlow, co-author of a study behind what's being called the ytterbium optical lattice clock. Until now, the standard for time precision in the US has been a cesium-based clock. Some 9.19 billion oscillations of its electromagnetic signal defines a second. But the ytterbium clock oscillates about a quadrillion times per second, allowing observers to "divide time into finer and finer intervals," Ludlow notes.

Those intervals are extremely regular; indeed, two of the clocks have set a record for stability, Science Daily reports. Their timing would be perfect for about as long as the universe has existed. Experts must measure the cesium clock across five days for the most precise readings, whereas the ytterbium clock requires just a second to offer the same level of precision. Why would we ever need such a thing? It could mean better GPS, for example: Because the navigation systems are in space, their time perception isn't quite the same as ours on Earth. Scientists could better correct for that using a more precise clock, CNN notes.

The new atomic clock.
The new atomic clock.   (Burrus/NIST)
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