UA, Naval Observatory partnership to improve precise timing education

UA, Naval Observatory partnership to improve precise timing education
The U.S. Naval Observatory is home to the Time Services Department with a building, left, that houses the Master Clock. (U.S. Naval Observatory)

The University of Alabama has partnered with the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) to train UA students in precise timing and time interval technology, which is used in highly precise atomic clocks on which the military, financial sector, GPS satellites and power grids rely.

The partnership will involve an interdisciplinary program drawing on resources from the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering. It positions UA to be one of the few universities in the world training students in the field.

“We’re looking forward to helping the precise-time community get qualified graduates that can make positive contributions right from the start,” said Paul Koppang, director of the USNO Clock Operations Division. “Right now, basically, people are trained on the job when they get there. Another thing this will do is also provide awareness to students that this is a possible career path for them.”

Through the partnership, USNO will assist UA in developing curriculum related to precise timing; send staff to present lectures and seminars; loan or donate equipment; offer tours and demonstrations of facilities; and provide academic and career advice to students.

The Clock Vault at the U.S. Naval Observatory includes a number of hydrogen masers (foreground). (U.S. Naval Observatory)


UA will begin training students for careers in precise timing and will create teaching and research labs with the equipment provided by the USNO. UA’s department of physics and astronomy has developed, and is seeking approval of, concentrations in precision timing for master’s and doctoral degrees.

“What’s interesting about this technology is the public doesn’t really know that it exists,” said Andrew Lemmon, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “But if it stopped working — if atomic clocks that use this technology ceased to operate — everyone would very quickly know about it because things like online financial transactions, GPS and the power grid would be severely disrupted.”

Not only are atomic clocks and precise-timing technology important to modern life; they are used for timing U.S. military installations worldwide. Yet over the past two decades, the number of U.S. experts in precise timing has dwindled.

“Nearly all sectors of our economy rely on this silent infrastructure working perfectly in the background of our daily activities, yet the number of experts in the field supporting those activities, and our economy with it, number only a few dozen nationwide,” said Adam Hauser, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy.

One type of atomic clock used by the U.S. Department of Defense, called a hydrogen maser, uses the properties of hydrogen atoms to provide a timing reference that is approximately 1 billion times more stable than time provided by traditional mechanical clocks.

Hydrogen masers are made in only one place in the United States, Tuscaloosa, which is how UA faculty got involved. Through a collaborative research program with Microsemi, the company that makes hydrogen masers, Lemmon was able to visit the USNO and learned about concerns of the dwindling talent pool. Soon after, the partnership was born.

“We are excited to offer our students the opportunity to receive training in this crucial and growing field,”­ Lemmon said.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

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