Scientists Have Built An Atomic Clock So Precise It Could Detect Dark Matter

The new atomic clock is based on ytterbium atoms and is so accurate that it could pick up faint signals from gravity or even the early universe.

Image of the Famous world clock at Alexander Square in Berlin, Germany.
Lepneva Irina / Shutterstock

The new atomic clock is based on ytterbium atoms and is so accurate that it could pick up faint signals from gravity or even the early universe.

We now have an atomic clock so accurate that it could be used — in theory — to hunt for the elusive dark matter particles.

The news comes from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland, which yesterday announced that it has developed an atomic clock so precise that it could improve current models of our planet’s surface — and even unravel some of the mysteries of modern physics.

According to NIST — which built the world’s first atomic clock almost 70 years ago — the new experimental model is “ticking precisely enough to not only improve timekeeping and navigation but also detect faint signals from gravity, the early universe and perhaps even dark matter.”

As the Inquisitr previously reported, atomic clocks measure time by counting how often atoms vibrate — or tick — as they switch between two energy levels (frequencies).

The atomic clock built by NIST is an optical lattice clock which measures the vibrations of ytterbium atoms with the help of a laser system. The device works by trapping 1,000 ytterbium atoms — cooled to near absolute zero — into an optical lattice, which is essentially a grid made of laser beams that interact and generate a specific wave pattern.

“The ytterbium atom is among potential candidates for the future redefinition of the second — the international unit of time — in terms of optical frequencies,” states NIST.

To test out the new atomic clock, the renowned NIST institute produced two experimental models so that it could evaluate their performance in comparison with each other — the standard practice in assessing the accuracy of clocks.

In a series of experiments designed to ensure that the clocks accurately represent the frequencies of the atoms, produce stable measurements, and yield reproducible results, the two devices proved to be unbelievably precise, reporting error bars of just a billionth of a billionth.

These spectacular results are described by the NIST teams in a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“The passage of time is tracked by counting oscillations of a frequency reference, such as Earth’s revolutions or swings of a pendulum. By referencing atomic transitions, frequency (and thus time) can be measured more precisely than any other physical quantity.”

An older version of an ultra-stable ytterbium lattice atomic clock at NIST.
An older version of an ultra-stable ytterbium lattice atomic clock at NIST. NIST / Wikimedia Commons/Resized

The new atomic clocks are so accurate that they won’t lose time in the next 15 billion years, reports CNet. In fact, these models are precise enough to be sensitive to gravitational influences — meaning that the only thing that could alter their ticks and tocks would be gravity itself.

“As we envision clocks like these being used around the country or world, their relative performance would be, for the first time, limited by Earth’s gravitational effects,” NIST physicist Andrew Ludlow, who led the entire project, said in a statement.

NIST physicist Andrew Ludlow posing next to and earlier version of the ytterbium lattice clock.
NIST physicist Andrew Ludlow posing next to an earlier version of the ytterbium lattice clock. NIST / Wikimedia Commons/Resized

This opens up exciting possibilities not only for geodesy — the precise measurement of Earth’s size, shape, orientation, and gravitational influence — but also for groundbreaking work in physics and astrophysics.

Current models of Earth are based on satellite data and state-of-the-art computer modeling that offer an image of our planet at a level of accuracy of up to several centimeters in resolution. However, the new atomic clocks could provide even more precise measurements of just 1 centimeter in resolution.

“Armed with two of these clocks, researchers could compare sea level on two different continents, the precise height of a mountain, or any other height-based (and, thus, gravity-based) measurement they care to make,” notes Discover magazine.

But wait, there’s more. Since these ytterbium atomic clocks are sensitive to gravitational influences, they could be able to pick up not just Earth’s gravitational shape, but other gravity-related phenomena as well. For instance, the new atomic clocks could be used to detect gravitational waves passing through our planet — “signals from the early universe,” as NIST points out — and even the elusive dark matter particles, which only interact with gravity.

As Science Alert explains, the theory is that an atomic clock would start ticking faster or slower if it interacted with dark matter. These minute changes in atomic oscillation are too minuscule to normally be perceived, occurring at fractions of a second. However, they could be detected by using synchronized atomic clocks.