Feeds

Boffins quarrel over ridding world of leap seconds

What should set the time - atomic watches or the sunrise?

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

The measurement and regulation of time could start to change this week if an ITU meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, gives the nod.

International Telecommunication Union members are discussing whether Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) should be set using a system that does not factor in the Earth's imperfect spin – which necessitates the insertion of a leap second every so often so clocks can stay precisely synchronised with the world's uneven rotation.

UTC is based on the planet's revolutions and International Atomic Time (TAI), the latter of which is set by a network of 300 atomic clocks that don't lose track of time. The leap second was introduced in 1971 to keep the gap between the atomic clocks and the time according to the Earth's rotation at less than 0.9 seconds.

UTC was preferred over TAI as the standard time reference because it's more useful for mariners; it was believed a system that factored in the Earth's spin was needed for accurate navigation on the high seas.

However, some now say UTC will become unworkable because the planet's rotation is slowing down - meaning more leap seconds are needed. Other factors that can also affect the rotation include melting polar ice caps.

Steve Allen, of the Lick Observatory in Santa Cruz, California, has calculated UTC will require one leap second inserted per month by the year 3752. Back in the 21st century, leap seconds are inserted in December or June - the last leap second was added on 31 December, 2008, and the next is scheduled for 30 June this year.

Adding leap seconds poses technical challenges and potential dangers for systems that rely on time measurements, according to proponents of change: chiefly, servers, air traffic control, GPS and space missions. Software that relies on timestamps for transactions or for actions such as geo-location has to be updated to compensate for each change.

For instance, space agencies won't schedule lift-offs for days when leap seconds are added, and servers at Google apparently failed to handle a 2005 update. Google now runs the clocks on its computers slowly for a short period before an adjustment is due, ensuring the insertion of a leap second is a gradual process rather than an instantaneous one.

There are opponents to the potential change. Among them are ITU reps from Britain. Markus Kuhn, a computer scientist at the University of Cambridge and ITU member, has argued that there's a lack of credible evidence for serious problems caused by leap seconds, adding that computers can easily cope with leap seconds.

"We must not give up the >5,000 years old human practice of defining time through Earth's rotation because of unfounded worries of some air traffic control engineers," he wrote.

If the ITU agrees to remove leap seconds at this week's meeting it will be put to a vote at its next confab in September. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
Vulture 2 takes a battering in 100km/h test run
Still in one piece, but we're going to need MORE POWER
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
TRIANGULAR orbits will help Rosetta to get up close with Comet 67P
Probe will be just 10km from Space Duck in October
ANU boffins demo 'tractor beam' in water
The current state of the art, apparently
China to test recoverable moon orbiter
I'll have some rocks and a moon cheese pizza please, home delivery
What does a flashmob of 1,024 robots look like? Just like this
Sorry, Harvard, did you say kilobots or KILLER BOTS?
NASA's rock'n'roll shock: ROLLING STONE FOUND ON MARS
No sign of Ziggy Stardust and his band
Why your mum was WRONG about whiffy tattooed people
They're a future source of RENEWABLE ENERGY
Vulture 2 spaceplane autopilot brain surgery a total success
LOHAN slips into some sexy bespoke mission parameters
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Solving today's distributed Big Data backup challenges
Enable IT efficiency and allow a firm to access and reuse corporate information for competitive advantage, ultimately changing business outcomes.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.