January 3, 2013
Better Accuracy For Optical Strontium Clock
Alpha Galileo Foundation
PTB measures the influence of the ambient temperature on strontium atoms for the first time — measurement uncertainty reduced by one order of magnitude
An optical clock with neutral strontium atoms is considered one of the top candidates for the definition of a "new" second. The probabilities have increased considerably, since its frequency will now be determined more accurately (probably by an order of magnitude). Scientists of the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) have laid the foundation for this by measuring, for the first time, the influence of the most important uncertainty factor, namely the ambient temperature. To date, its influence could only be derived theoretically. Their results, which have been published in the latest issue of the scientific journal Physical Review Letters, might well spark interest also in geodesy and in fundamental physical research — more specifically: in the question as to whether fundamental constants are really constant.
The reason why optical clocks are so accurate is that optical radiation oscillates extremely fast — considerably faster than microwave radiation, which is currently used in caesium atomic clocks to "produce" the second. The faster the "pendulum" (the oscillating system) of a clock, the finer the time can, in principle, be broken down and, thus, the more stable and accurate the clock becomes. In an optical strontium clock, a cloud of neutral strontium atoms is cooled down in two steps by means of laser radiation until the atoms finally exhibit a speed of only a few centimeters per second. A so-called "optical lattice" ensures that the atoms are trapped and can virtually no longer move. Unfortunately, strontium atoms, of all things, react relatively strongly to changes in the ambient temperature; their atomic levels are then shifted energetically, which causes the clock to become inaccurate. This is the highest contribution to the uncertainty of this clock, and PTB scientists have now succeeded in measuring it for the first time. To this end, they, however, needed an auxiliary system: in order to carry out measurements with the required accuracy, they considerably amplified the effect by using a static electric field instead of the alternating electromagnetic field of blackbody radiation. They constructed a special parallel-plate capacitor whose electric field is known with a few-ten-ppm accuracy. For this purpose, the distance between the two plates, which amounted to 0.5 cm, may only vary by a few 100 nm over its length of 7 cm; the same applies to the accuracy of the distance.
With this parallel-plate capacitor, the PTB scientists measured the influence of electromagnetic fields on the two decisive (for their clock) eigenstates in the strontium atom. In this way, they determined its uncertainty contribution to the total measurement uncertainty to 5 Ã 10—18. And because just this influence had, to date, been the most restrictive influence on the total measurement uncertainty, one can expect the next frequency measurements of the clock as a whole to lie well below the previously attained 1 Ã 10-16.
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