New Super-Accurate Atomic Clock Tells Time Like No Other

A U.S. government agency has introduced a new atomic clock to serve as an improved standard for civilian timekeeping, and officials say it’s three times as accurate as its predecessor.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology announced the new clock, called NIST-F2, on Thursday at NIST headquarters in Boulder, Colo.

An atomic clock is designed to measure time according to vibrations within atoms.

Like the NIST-F1, which has served as the U.S. civilian time standard since 1999, NIST-2 uses a "fountain" of cesium atoms to determine the exact length of a second.

Image: NIST physicists Steve Jefferts and Tom Heavner with the NIST-F2 atomic clock
NIST physicists Steve Jefferts (foreground) and Tom Heavner with the NIST-F2 “cesium fountain” atomic clock, a new civilian time standard for the United States. NIST

“NIST-F2 is now an official source of time for the United States — it has an accuracy that's equivalent to about one second in 300 million years,” said Thomas O'Brian, chief of NIST's time and frequency division.

That makes NIST-F2 about three times as accurate as NIST-F1.

But why should we care about such minute detail?

O’Brian noted that much of the technology we use everyday — from electric power grids to computer networks to GPS systems in planes, cars and smartphones — rely on the “exquisite precision” of atomic clocks.

Added NIST physicist Steven Jefferts, lead designer of NIST-F2, in a press release: “If we've learned anything in the last 60 years of building atomic clocks, we've learned that every time we build a better clock, somebody comes up with a use for it that you couldn't have foreseen."

For now, NIST plans to simultaneously operate both NIST-F1 and NIST-F2. Scientists hope long-term comparisons will lead to improvements in both clocks as they serve as U.S. standards for civilian time. (The U.S. Naval Observatory maintains military time standards.)

You can read more about the atomic clocks at the NIST website. And if you want to know what the official U.S. time is right now, go here.