Experimental atomic clocks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have completed three new performance records, now ticking precisely enough to not only improve timekeeping and navigation, but also detect faint signals from gravity, the early universe and possibly even dark matter.

The clocks each trap a thousand ytterbium atoms in optical lattices, grids made of laser beams. The atoms tick by vibrating or switching between two energy levels. By comparing two independent clocks, NIST physicists achieved record performance in three important measures: systematic uncertainty, stability and reproducibility.

Systematic uncertainty: How well the clock represents natural vibrations, or frequency, of the atoms. NIST researchers found that each clock ticked at a rate matching the natural frequency to within a possible error of just 1.4 parts in 1018, about one billionth of a billionth.

Stability: How much the clock's frequency changes over a specified time interval, measured to a level of 3.2 parts in 1019 (or 0.00000000000000000032) over a day.

Reproducibility: How closely the two clocks tick at the same frequency, shown by 10 comparisons of the clock pair, yielding a frequency difference below the 10-18 level (again, less than one billionth of a billionth).

Among the improvements in NIST's latest ytterbium clocks was the inclusion of thermal and electric shielding, which surround the atoms to protect them from stray electric fields and enable researchers to better characterize and correct for frequency shifts caused by heat radiation.

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