The British government has pledged £36 million towards a National Timing Centre – a new network of atomic clocks that will free the country from dependency on precise time sources provided by third-party satellite infrastructure.
In the event of failure or lock-out from global satellite positioning infrastructure, the centre – which will not be a physical building – will have in place a network of resilient atomic clocks that will act as accurate timing systems.
We rely on satellites to provide positioning, navigation and timing services that underpin a range of public services and commercial activities.
— UK Space Agency (@spacegovuk) February 19, 2020
This would be crucial for the resilience critical infrastructure such as 4G/5G networks, the stock exchange, the energy grid and for the emergency services that require hugely precise time-stamps, the government said today.
For location and timing data the emergency and public services currently use a mixture of the US-operated Global Positioning System (GPS) and the EU’s Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS); facilitated by the Galileo constellation.
If these system were to fail then the UK economy would lose roughly £1 billion a day, HMG estimates. (The UK’s current dependence on satellite technologies was identified as a security and resilience risk in 2018’s Blackett Review).
System failure is not a far-fetched scenario: last year the Galileo GPS system was knocked offline for a full week following software issues that have never been fully disclosed. The situation was only remedied after a number of the ground infrastructure elements were re-initiated.
UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive Professor Sir Mark Walport commented in a release that: “Our emergency services, energy network and economy rely on the precise time source that global satellite navigation systems provide. The failure of these systems has been identified as a major risk, and The National Timing Centre programme will help to protect both vital services and the economy from the disruption this would cause while delivering considerable economic benefits.”
Why Not Just Use Mechanical Clocks?
On antique clocks a swinging pendulum is used as the ‘frequency reference’, where one swing of the pendulum represents one second. However, a pendulum is subject to changes in temperatures, manufacturing errors and even gravitational effects that make them highly inaccurate in scientific terms.
In the last eighty years more accurate clocks were built using different frequency references, such as quartz clocks. Quartz crystals are known as a piezoelectric material, which means that they resonate when they experience an electrical charge and additional mechanical stress on the quartz causes it to generate pulses that are emitted at a precise regular beat. These beats are used to create accurate time devices. However, quartz clocks still loses time due to environmental factors.
In order to create a clock that is immune to environmental factors such as manufacturing errors, temperature changes and pressure, scientists turned to the oscillations of atoms. Since 1967, a second has been defined as equal to 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the Caesium 133 atom. Using this precise and constant measurement scientists have built atomic clocks that are pretty accurate as they only lose a second every one-hundred million years or so…
Dr Alessia Pasquazi from the EPic Lab in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex earlier noted that portable atomic clocks could be on the horizon.
She wrote: “With a portable atomic clock, an ambulance, for example, will be able to still access their mapping whilst in a tunnel, and a commuter will be able to plan their route whilst on the underground or without mobile phone signal in the countryside. Portable atomic clocks would work on an extremely accurate form of geo-mapping, enabling access to your location and planned route without the need for satellite signal.”
The centre is not a physical building, but a group of researchers based across several locations. Those locations are the University of Birmingham, the University of Strathclyde, University of Surrey, BT Adastral Park, Suffolk, BBC, Manchester, and the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.