Atomic clocks play a critical role in the modern world. Without atomic clocks, lots of everyday technology wouldn’t work. For example, navigation systems, cell phones, computers and other electronic devices rely on accurate time measurements from atomic clocks to function correctly. The following guide explores how atomic clocks work.
To understand the value of atomic clocks, it’s important to understand the history behind timekeeping technology. Over the last 2000 years, scientists and inventors have been looking for more accurate ways to record the time.
Early time devices, like sun clocks, could only provide accuracy within a few minutes. However, pendulums and winding mechanisms allowed for clocks that were often accurate to within a few seconds.
Most modern clocks use quartz crystals to determine the time. Since quartz vibrates at a particular frequency when electrified, it can be an excellent and affordable way to accurately calculate the time. However, quartz crystals still gain or lose several seconds every year.
Atomic clocks measure the vibrations of a caesium atom enclosed in a special chamber. Since the laws of physics dictate that caesium can only vibrate at a certain number of times per second, it can be used as a very accurate way to determine the time.
Modern atomic clocks will only gain or lose one second every 30 million years. Because they are very accurate, it’s possible to use them for a variety of purposes. One of the most well-known uses of atomic clocks involves GPS navigation.
Global position systems (GPS) use a series of satellites in outer space to help a user determine his or her location on the ground. When an individual uses a GPS receiver, the receiver locks on to signals from several satellites in outer space. These satellites are arranged in a special pattern that can be used to triangulate a user’s position on the ground.
Each GPS satellite contains an atomic clock that transmits a highly accurate time signal. While radio waves travel at the speed of light, it can take some satellites longer to transmit this time signal to the ground. Based on the differences in the transmission times between different GPS satellites, it’s possible for a user to determine his or her location anywhere on earth.
Without atomic clocks, navigation systems would be impossible. There were be no way to measure the distance between an individual’s location and his or her distance from a GPS satellite.
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