Atomic clocks use an atomic resonance frequency standard as their timekeeping element and are by far the most accurate chronometers possible with the latest Strontium based atomic clocks boasting a precision of a less than a second lost in several hundred million years.
The clocks maintain a continuous and stable time scale called International Atomic Time (TAI). However, for civil time, another time scale, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)which is derived from TAI, but synchronized using leap seconds to UTC, to keep it based on the rotation of the Earth.
UTC is a global timescale that is commonly used to synchronise the clocks on computer networks allowing machines from across the globe to communicate together and conduct time sensitive applications.
Unfortunately atomic clocks are highly expensive pieces of equipment and are generally only to be found in high technology physics laboratories or onboard satellites. However, several national physics laboratories broadcast the time told by their atomic clocks via a long wave radio transmission. These signals are commonly picked up and utilized by radio controlled wall and desk clocks and by NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol).
The transmissions from the national standards agencies maintain an accuracy of 10-9 seconds per day (approximately 1 part in 1014). MSF is the signal broadcast by National Physical Laboratory in, Anthorn, Cumbria. Other countries boast their own signals the most common being the DCF77 transmission broadcast from Mainflingen near Frankfurt, Germany and the USA's WWVB signal broadcast from Fort Collins, Colorado.
All these times signals work in a similar way. At the start of each second the strength of the signal is either reduced by between 6 and 10 dB or switched off for a specific amount of time before being restored. The amount of time the signal is reduced is used to indicate a stream of binary numbers with positioning markers. The exact format of the code varies between each signal although they are similar in format.
Dedicated NTP time servers that attach to a computer can utilise this signal to synchronise computer networks to. These dedicated devices are ideal for keeping networks running accurate time and can typically keep a network accurate to within a few milliseconds of UTC time.
Richard N Williams is a technical author and specialist in atomic clocks, telecommunications, NTP and network time synchronisation helping to develop dedicated NTP clocks. Please visit us for more information about a network timeserver or other ntp server solutions.
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