World's most accurate and precise atomic clock pushes new frontiers in physics

Scientists at JILA, a joint institution of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado Boulder, have developed a new atomic clock that is more precise and accurate than any previously created. This clock uses an optical lattice, a web of light, to trap and measure tens of thousands of individual strontium atoms simultaneously, allowing for increased precision.

The new clock design allows for the detection of tiny effects predicted by theories such as general relativity, even at the microscopic scale. This pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with timekeeping and could significantly bridge the gap between the microscopic quantum realm and the large-scale phenomena described by general relativity.

More precise atomic clocks also enable more accurate navigation and exploration in space. As humans venture farther into the solar system, clocks will need to keep precise time over vast distances. The new clock is a major step towards making that possible.

The same methods used to trap and control the atoms could also produce breakthroughs in quantum computing. Quantum computers need to be able to precisely manipulate the internal properties of individual atoms or molecules to perform computations. The progress in controlling and measuring microscopic quantum systems has significantly advanced this endeavor.

The worldwide scientific community is considering redefining the second, the international unit of time, based on these next-generation optical atomic clocks. Compared with current microwave clocks, optical clocks are expected to deliver much higher accuracy for international timekeeping—potentially losing only one second every 30 billion years.

Before these atomic clocks can perform with such high accuracy, they need to have very high precision; in other words, they must be able to measure extremely tiny fractions of a second. Achieving both high precision and high accuracy could have vast implications.

This story is republished courtesy of NIST. The research is currently available on the arXiv preprint server, and a paper has been accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters.

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