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How Atomic Clocks Work

How Does a Practical Cesium Atomic Clock Work?

Atoms have characteristic oscillation frequencies. Perhaps the most familiar frequency is the orange glow from the sodium in table salt if it is sprinkled on a flame. An atom will have many frequencies, some at radio wavelength, some in the visible spectrum, and some in between the two. Cesium 133 is the element most commonly chosen for atomic clocks.

To turn the cesium atomic resonance into an atomic clock, it is necessary to measure one of its transition or resonant frequencies accurately. This is normally done by locking a crystal oscillator to the principal microwave resonance of the cesium atom. This signal is in the microwave range of the radio spectrum, and just happens to be at the same sort of frequency as direct broadcast satellite signals. Engineers understand how to build equipment in this area of the spectrum in great detail.

To create a clock, cesium is first heated so that atoms boil off and pass down a tube maintained at a high vacuum. First they pass through a magnetic field that selects atoms of the right energy state; then they pass through an intense microwave field. The frequency of the microwave energy sweeps backward and forward within a narrow range of frequencies, so that at some point in each cycle it crosses the frequency of exactly 9,192,631,770 Hertz (Hz, or cycles per second). The range of the microwave generator is already close to this exact frequency, as it comes from an accurate crystal oscillator. When a cesium atom receives microwave energy at exactly the right frequency, it changes its energy state.

At the far end of the tube, another magnetic field separates out the atoms that have changed their energy state if the microwave field was at exactly the correct frequency. A detector at the end of the tube gives an output proportional to the number of cesium atoms striking it, and therefore peaks in output when the microwave frequency is exactly correct. This peak is then used to make the slight correction necessary to bring the crystal oscillator and hence the microwave field exactly on frequency. This locked frequency is then divided by 9,192,631,770 to give the familiar one pulse per second required by the real world.

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