This New Atomic Clock Is Way More On Time Than You (And Will Be For The Next 300 Million Years)

On Thursday, a brand-new atomic clock made its debut in Boulder, Colo., and it'll know exactly how late you are for about the next 300 million years. The fancy timepiece, called the NIST F-2, keeps standardized time for U.S. citizens, and it's three times more accurate than its predecessor. Take that, NIST F-1!

The atomic clock, kept by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is the gold standard for time. Computer networks, banks and other entities synchronize their clocks to match up with it — it gets more than 8 billion requests a day. This clock is what makes your cell phone and laptop determine exactly how late you are to, say, class, or brunch with your friends.

The new NIST F-2 should be able to stay accurate without losing or gaining a second for about 300 million years. It's been in the works for the last decade and is the world's most accurate time standard. Wired reports that with the construction of the new clock, researchers are reaching the limit of time accuracy. They cite Steve Jefferts, the new clock's lead developer, who said:

In the not to distant future, we will end up redefining the second.

Right.

The old clock had tiny errors caused by background radiation, which this clock mostly avoids. The atomic clock measures atoms in highly-specific conditions to keep time: NIST-2 cools cesium atoms down to a temperature a fraction of a millionth of a degree above absolute zero, slowing them down, and eventually measures the frequency of the atoms to keep time.

That may seem like overkill, but devices increasingly depend on super-accurate time measurements. For example, GPS, which helps you find that doctor's office you're late getting to, needs time that's accurate to roughly a billionth of a second.

National Institute of Standards and Technology on YouTube

Jefferts notes in the video that every time the organization builds a better clock, somebody finds a new way to make it useful.

In some very real sense, the job of NIST is to recognize and move forward the best standards you can have for basic quantities of length, mass, and time, and things like that. ...People keep making it better, and when you make it better, somebody starts having a use for it and so you have to make a better one, and this process continues to this day.