Tag Archives: Atomic Clocks

Synchronizing “atomic” clock’s final tock? Time may no longer be synchronous

Do you have a self-setting “atomic” clock or watch?

Yep, so do I.  A number of them.  In fact, although I’m a tech geek of a sort, I don’t even know how many of my standard, everyday devices––devices I rely on every day––fall into this category…But I may find out soon.

Many of us own self-setting clocks known as “atomic” clocks.  Indeed, a large portion of wall clocks, alarm clocks, and watches, not to mention weather stations, cameras, and potentially a number of other devices, have a built-in receiver that self-calibrates. And all of these sync to a radio station you use more than any other, yet likely have never heard of: NIST Time Signal Station WWVB in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Here’s the issue: WWVB, the atomic clock time signal station that synchronizes time devices, may be shut down next year if a presidential budget request passes as proposed.

WWVB is a time station operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which derives its time from a system of atomic clocks with frequency uncertainty of less than 1 part in 1012.

Translation: How accurate is this time signal? Crazily, insanely accurate.

And that’s a good thing, as so many of the things we rely on all the time (and often take for granted) rely on it. WWVB provides a continuous 60 kHz carrier wave that, among other things, is employed by self-setting “atomic” clocks used by consumers and industry. WWVB receivers are embedded in so many consumer appliances from cameras to irrigation controllers, these devices depend upon the very accurate timing the station imparts.

Per the NIST:

For huge numbers of people in North America who spend their days in schools, offices, stores, factories and public facilities, the time of their lives comes from clocks controlled by a single radio station that few people have ever heard: WWVB in Ft. Collins, Colorado, operated by PML’s Time and Frequency Division.

According to the latest estimates, there are at least 50 million radio-controlled clocks in operation (and another few million wristwatches) all receiving accurate time from WWVB’s 60 kHz broadcast—and approximately a million new commercial radio-controlled products are sold each year.[…]

Regular readers of the SWLing Post are already aware that the NIST Fiscal Year 2019 Presidential Budget Request includes a call to shutdown WWVB and two shortwave radio NIST time stations, WWV and WWVH.

What happens if WWVB is shut down?

This budget was not approved by Sir Topham Hatt!

If the budget is passed as proposed, after WWVB is closed your atomic clock synchronized devices will no longer be accurate, nor will they automatically be able to toggle the time between Standard to Daylight Savings Time.

They’ll continue to operate, albeit without a self-setting function…thus eventually leading, in the words of Thomas the tank engine’s ubiquitous station master, Sir Topham Hatt, to “confusion and delays.”

And, unfortunately, should the closure occur, there may not even be any public announcement to that effect.

But what does this have to do with us?

These devices are so embedded in our lives here in North America, we scarcely notice them, and many consumers likely assume they’re set by the Internet.

They’re just an overlooked part of our lives that help keep us ticking––quite literally. Until a shutdown happens, we won’t know how many of the millions of devices that we rely upon will be affected. While there may be (arguably lesser) alternatives to this station’s time-setting provision, such as those provided by the Navy and the Internet, we will be without the one we rely upon most for accuracy.

The bottom line…

Something that belongs to all of us, and that we all rely upon to help us keep accurate time, may soon be taken away.  If you feel strongly about keeping the atomic clock signal on the air, I urge you to contact your local representatives,and sign this White House petition.

Otherwise? Time will tell. Or not, as the case may be.

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WWVB celebrates 50 years of quietly keeping time

WWV building in Fort Collins, Colorado (photo courtesy: NIST)

WWV building in Fort Collins, Colorado (photo courtesy: NIST)

Thanks, David, for sharing a link to this brilliant article on the history and future of WWVB:

(Source: Wired)

Every night, while millions of Americans are fast asleep, clocks and wristwatches across the country wake up and lock on to a radio signal beamed from the base of the Rocky Mountains. The signal contains a message that keeps the devices on time, helping to make sure their owners keep to their schedules and aren’t late for work the next day.

The broadcast comes from WWVB, a station run by the National Institute for Standards and Technology. WWVB marks half a century as the nation’s official time broadcaster on July 5. Together with its sister station, WWV, which is about to hit 90 years in service, NIST radio has been an invisible piece of American infrastructure that has advanced industries from entertainment to telecommunications. (WWV’s broadcast includes a wider range of information, including maritime weather warnings and solar storm alerts).

Most people aren’t even aware that these stations exist, but they have a rich and fascinating history. Their future is uncertain, however, as newer technologies threaten to make them obsolete.

[…]WWV began broadcasting reference frequencies for signal calibration using equipment not that different from the chunk of quartz in a modern wristwatch. These days, though, a bit of quantum physics keeps the nation’s signals in sync. Cesium-133 atoms within the NIST-F1 atomic clock oscillate a frantic 9,192,631,770 times per second, acting like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. By tuning into that oscillation, NIST defines the basic unit of time, and by extension, frequency. Over the years, the reference frequencies have been so finely calibrated that they are accurate to beyond a single cycle in a trillion.

[…]WWVB’s value might have a lot to do with the type of signal it broadcasts and its location. While most commercial radio waves measure only a few meters between peaks, WWVB’s low frequency signal results in a whopping five kilometer wavelength. These long-wavelength signals can reach around the curvature of the planet by clinging to the semi-conductive surface of the Earth. On a clear night, a radio-controlled watch can pick up WWVB’s 60 kHz signal as far away as Patagonia or New Zealand.[…]

Read the full article at Wired.com.

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Grandfather of WWV’s atomic clock

I just discovered a film produced by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) Film Unit in the 1950s explaining the principles behind the first accurate atomic clock. The clock was designed by Louis Essen and built at the National Physical Laboratory in 1955.

This film gives fascinating insight into the physics that run atomic clocks like those behind the WWV and CHU time stations. Better yet, the science is easy to swallow with the traditional “BBC” style voice narration. Enjoy!

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