2016 just got a tiny bit longer. Gee, thanks, time lords

Five, four, three, two, one... one

Artist's impression of Earth-Like worlds. Pic: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Most people are over 2016 - although god knows what next year has in store. But unfortunately they'll have to endure it bit longer: one second longer to be precise.

This year the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) will insert the leap second before midnight, in order to keep the timescale based on atomic clocks in sync with time based on the Earth's rotation.

Atomic clocks are more than a million times better at keeping time than the rotation of the Earth, which fluctuates unpredictably, says Peter Whibberley, senior research scientist at the NPL.

“Leap seconds are needed to prevent civil time drifting away from Earth time," he said.

"Although the drift is small – taking around a thousand years to accumulate a 1-hour difference – if not corrected it would eventually result in clocks showing midday before sunrise.”

Leap seconds are added on June 30 and Dec 31, with this year being the 27th leap second since the practice began in 1971. They typically occur every two or three years, with the last one inserted in June 2015.

There are no space launches to avoid any potential problems - such as computer systems running malfunctioning after being thrown out of sync.

However, some experts want to end the practice of coupling of Universal Co-ordinated Time (UTC) with astronomical time – the practice that gave us the concept of leap seconds.

In 2015, public affairs officer for the US Naval Observatory in Washington Geoff Chester warned that about 10 per cent of large-scale computer networks will encounter hiccups due to the leap second.

Minor issues have previously occurred with Mozilla Yelp, FourSquare, Reddit and LinkedIn.

Dr Leon Lobo, strategic business development manager for NPLTime, said: “Because leap seconds are only introduced sporadically, they have to be manually programmed into computers and getting them wrong can cause loss of synchronisation in communication networks, financial systems and many other applications which rely on precise timing.”

NPL is working on developing the next generation of atomic clocks: optical clocks based on laser-cooled trapped ions and atoms which should achieve accuracies equivalent to one second over the lifetime of the universe. The most accurate atomic clocks still occupy entire labs.

In the future it hopes to use miniature atomic clocks to send unhackable communications, improve deep space navigation, and eventually integrate them into smartphones, increasing data transfer rates in communications networks. ®




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