Atomic Clock


Atomic Clock, device that measures time by the frequency of radiation emitted by an atom or molecule when it makes a transition between two energy states. Atomic clocks are extremely precise and are used to keep universal time—the international basis for establishing legal and scientific times and for setting all public and private clocks worldwide. See also Clocks and Watches.


An atomic clock measures the frequency of electromagnetic radiation emitted by an atom or molecule. When an atom or molecule moves from one energy level to another, a specific amount, or quantum, of energy is absorbed when jumping to a higher energy level or emitted when falling to a lower energy level. The amount of energy absorbed or emitted depends on the difference between the energy levels. The atom or molecule emits energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation and the wavelength and frequency of the radiation depends on the amount of energy released by each transition between energy levels. Because the atom or molecule can only emit or absorb a specific amount of energy, the radiation emitted or absorbed has a regular frequency. A counter in the atomic clock keeps track of each cycle.


Atomic clocks determine the frequency of an atom or molecule’s transition in one of two ways. An active atomic clock induces a group of atoms in an elevated energy state to drop to a lower energy state, measuring the frequency of radiation emitted by the atoms. A passive atomic clock exposes a group of atoms in a lower energy state to electromagnetic radiation with changing frequency. When a majority of atoms jump to the next energy level, it signals that the correct frequency has been achieved.


Most atomic clocks in use today are passive cesium clocks. The United States National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) established the second as the time radiation would take to go through 9,192,631,770 cycles at the frequency emitted by cesium atoms making the transition from one state to another. Cesium clocks are so accurate that they will be off by only one second after running for 300 million years.


The atomic clock has led to new and more precise techniques for measuring time and distance. Satellite navigation and positioning systems such as the Global Positioning System rely on atomic clocks. Astronomers use atomic clocks to measure the amazingly regular cycles of spinning astronomical objects called millisecond pulsars. Atomic clocks helped support German American physicist Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity by showing that the passage of time appeared to change with speed. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses atomic clocks to time its transmissions to space probes.


American physicist Isidor Rabi and his associates at Columbia University built the first apparatus to measure radiation frequencies. The NBS built the first molecular clock, using ammonia gas, in 1949. The first model of the cesium clock in use today was built by American physicist Norman Ramsey in 1957.



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The most precise timekeeping devices are atomic clocks. Their uses include measuring the rotation of the earth, which may vary by 4 to 5 milliseconds per day, and aiding navigational systems such as the global positioning system in computing distances. Atomic clocks are tuned to the frequency of the electromagnetic waves that are emitted or absorbed when certain atoms or molecules make the transition between two closely spaced, or hyperfine, energy states. Because the frequency of these waves is unaffected by external forces, the corresponding period of the waves can be used as a standard to define time intervals.



The cesium-atom clock is used to define the second, the basic unit of time of the International System of Units. In this clock, cesium-133 atoms in one hyperfine energy state are subjected to microwave radiation that is near the resonant frequency of the transition to another hyperfine energy state. The microwave frequency is adjusted, and when the correct frequency is reached, many atoms make the transition to the new energy state. The frequency of the microwave radiation is then used to determine the period of the microwave, or the time interval between wave crests. The second is defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of radiation. The cesium-atom clock is very accurate and remains stable over long periods of time. The most stable cesium-atom clocks have an error of about plus or minus one second in one million years.



The rubidium clock uses the transition of the rubidium-87 atom between two hyperfine energy states. It employs the same basic principle as the cesium-atom clock. The rubidium atoms, however, are first forced to change their hyperfine energy state and are then subjected to microwave radiation to return them to their original state. When many atoms return to their original state, the correct transition frequency has been reached and the period of the wave can be used to measure time. Rubidium clocks are not as stable or as accurate as cesium-atom clocks, but they are more compact and less expensive.



The hydrogen clock and the ammonia clock rely on the maser principle. In a hydrogen clock, a focused magnetic field selects hydrogen atoms in a specific hyperfine energy state. These atoms are forced to change to a lower energy state. When many atoms make the transition, they begin to oscillate between the two states, emitting energy in the form of an electromagnetic wave. The period of this emitted wave is used to measure time. The hydrogen clock is very stable for several hours at a time.




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Courtesy of NIST Public Affairs



Atomic Clock



On December 29, 1999, the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology unveiled the NIST F-1, the most accurate clock in the world (a distinction it shares with a similar device located in Paris, France). NIST F-1, an atomic cesium fountain clock, replaces the NIST-7, which served as the primary United States time standard from 1993 to the end of 1999. The new atomic timekeeper is so accurate that it could run for nearly 20 million years without gaining or losing a single second. The clock is called a fountain clock because it measures the light emitted by super-cooled cesium atoms as they fall through a microwave cavity.



Microsoft ® Encarta ® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.






Atomic Time




Atomic time is the time scale of physics. Scientists use atomic time when they require exceptionally precise measurements of time intervals relating to physical phenomena. Clocks became more accurate and precise through the centuries, and with the introduction of atomic clocks—specifically, the construction of a high-precision cesium atomic clock in 1955—extremely accurate measurement of time became possible. Early mechanical clocks varied by several minutes each day. In the 1920s, vibrating quartz crystals were accurate to a few ten-thousandths of a second per day. The cesium atom clocks used in the 1980s lost less than a second in 3,000 years. In the 1990s the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the United States established an atomic clock—the NIST-7, also a cesium clock—that is accurate to a single second over 3 million years. The electronic components of atomic clocks are regulated by the frequency of radiation emitted or absorbed by a particular atom or molecule.



Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.







atomic clock




a type of clock that uses certain resonance frequencies of atoms to keep time with extreme accuracy. The electronic components of atomic clocks are regulated by the frequency of the microwave electromagnetic radiation emitted or absorbed by the quantum transition (energy change) of an atom or molecule. In an atomic clock these quantum transitions produce extremely regular waves of electromagnetic radiation; like the recurrent events in other types of clocks, these waves are then counted.



The cesium-beam atomic clock is the most accurate standard of atomic time (q.v.) and frequency. In 1967 the 13th General Conference on Weights and Measures redefined the SI unit of time, the second, in terms of the cesium standard so as to equal the second of Ephemeris Time (q.v.). The Conference defined the second as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom.”



A beam of cesium atoms emerges from an oven and passes through an inhomogeneous magnet A, which deflects atoms either upward or downward according to their quantum states. After passing through slit S, the atoms continue into a second inhomogeneous magnet B, where they follow the paths indicated by broken lines and are lost to the beam. If an alternating electromagnetic field of frequency v0 is applied to the beam as it traverses the centre region C, transitions between quantum states will occur. The atoms will then follow the solid lines in the diagram and strike a tungsten-wire detector, which gives electric signals in proportion to the number of cesium atoms striking the wire.





Time as systematized in modern scientific society



Atomic time



Atomic clocks


Other atomic clocks


Clocks regulated by hydrogen masers have been developed at Harvard University. The frequency of some masers has been kept stable within about one part in 1014 for intervals of a few hours. The uncertainty in the fundamental frequency, however, is greater than the stability of the clock; this frequency is approximately 1,420,405,751.77 Hz. Atomic-beam clocks controlled by a transition of the rubidium atom have been developed, but the operational frequency depends on details of the structure of the clock, so that it does not have the absolute precision of the cesium-beam clock.




SI second



The CGPM redefined the second in 1967 to equal 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation emitted or absorbed in the hyperfine transition of the cesium-133 atom; that is, the transition selected for control of the cesium-beam clock developed at the National Physical Laboratory. The definition implies that the atom should be in the unperturbed state at sea level. It makes the SI second equal to the ET second, determined from measurements of the position of the Moon, within the errors of observation. The definition will not be changed by any additional astronomical determinations.