Redefining time: US builds world's most accurate atomic clock ever

The JILA research institute, a joint endeavor between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado Boulder, has pioneered a cutting-edge light-based atomic clock. This groundbreaking clock will provide an unprecedented measurement of the second, leading to the future refinement of Einstein’s general relativity theories and the potential identification of new underground mineral deposits.

Typically, atomic clocks gauge the length of a second through microwave means. However, new research demonstrates the advantage of illuminating atoms using visible light, which possesses a higher frequency resulting in a more accurate counting of time.

Optical atomic clocks, such as the one developed by researchers at JILA, have the impressive potential to lose only a second every 30 billion years, in contrast with microwave-based clocks. Attaining this degree of precision depends on high-precision abilities to measure tiny fractions of time.

In their recent advancement, the JILA scientists employed a web of light, specifically an optical lattice, to concurrently measure tens of thousands of atoms instead of utilizing a beam of visible light as in prior experiments. This strategy permits the clock to analyze more data that leads to a more accurate determination of time.

By adopting a relatively milder procedure, the JILA researchers successfully tackled two major sources of measurement error, such as the laser disrupting the atom reading and the friction created when tightly-packed atoms collide with each other, increasing the clock’s overall accuracy.

Consistent with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the clock is delicately tuned to detect microscopic effects of gravity causing variations in time. Researchers can observe minute shifts in time during gravity changes by elevating or lowering the clock slightly from its initial position.

Significantly, the JILA group intends to extend their advanced clock technology into the quantum universe to scrutinize distortions in the flow of time where ideas from general relativity and quantum mechanics integrate. By applying this high-precision instrument in the microcosmic realm, they can contribute groundbreaking knowledge in this yet-explored intersection zone.

Beyond studying the realms of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the JILA clock can bolster spacial navigation. High-precision timekeeping helps maintain exact time measurements over remarkable distances in space, as evidenced by its crucial role in determining the precision of GPS. With the need to accurately land spaceships on distant planets looming, JILA’s clocks represent the key to progress in the quest for space exploration accuracy.

According to Jun Ye, a physicist at JILA, “It’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with timekeeping.” The discoveries from these research efforts could pave the way for scientists to witness unexplored phenomena, only previously theorized at the forefront of measurement science, Ye concludes. The research insights will be featured in the journal, Physical Review Letters.

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