Public consultation on leap seconds - time to change?

Jun 13, 2014

The UK government has launched a public consultation on the future of leap seconds. This has potential impacts on several areas of astronomy and geophysics.

Leap seconds are used to keep clocks in time with the Sun. The rate at which the Earth spins varies slightly over time, but the second is defined as a precise number of oscillations of a caesium atom in an atomic clock. As a result, the times measured by and by the position of the Sun drift slightly, and the former occasionally has to be corrected by adding or subtracting a 'leap second'.

At unpredictable intervals (currently once every few years), a leap second is added or subtracted from coordinated universal time (UTC – more or less equivalent to GMT). This keeps UTC within a second of the time measured using the position of the Sun in the sky. This compensates for the long term slowing down or speeding up of the rotation of the Earth, which is cause by various unpredictable geophysical processes.

As leap seconds cannot be predicted in advance (as leap years can), some countries and industries would like to see leap seconds abolished and for a new timescale to take the place of UTC. This would result in a (very) gradual shift between civil time and solar . For most purposes this would make no noticable difference for hundreds of years, but some applications which rely upon precise timekeeping would see benefits or disadvantages within a year or two. The pros and cons of this possible change have been the subject of much technical debate over the last decade.

The International Telecommunications Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) is the international body responsible for the definition of UTC, with delegates from different national governments. The ITU-R last considered the future of leap seconds in 2012, agreeing to defer a final decision on their retention or abolition until 2015.

In the UK the government has decided to consult the wider public - a policy advocated by the Royal Astronomical Society since 2005 - and this year established a public dialogue on leap seconds. The RAS has already contributed some expert advice on timekeeping and public engagement, however we encourage any interested Fellows to engage with the consultation.

Anyone who wishes to contribute can familiarise themselves with the background information, read the reports produced so far, and take the survey to submit their evidence.

Explore further: Creating the fastest outdoor wireless Internet connection in the world

More information: leapseconds.co.uk/background/

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Leap second to be added

Jun 29, 2012

A leap second will be introduced on 30 June 2012 following a decision made by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) earlier this year. This could potentially be one of the last ...

World timekeepers wrangle over scrapping leap second

Sep 20, 2013

Timekeeping experts failed Friday to reach a decision on scrapping the four-decade-old practice of adding extra seconds to clocks, a system opponents say causes headaches in a hi-tech, interconnected world.

Countries consider time out on the 'leap second'

Jan 17, 2012

It's high noon for the humble leap second. After ten years of talks, governments are headed for a showdown vote this week on an issue that pits technological precision against nature's whims.

Recommended for you

Off-world manufacturing is a go with space printer

25 minutes ago

On Friday, the BBC reported on a NASA email exchange with a space station which involved astronauts on the International Space Station using their 3-D printer to make a wrench from instructions sent up in ...

Cadillac CT6 will get streaming video mirror

1 hour ago

Cadillac said Thursday it will add high resolution streaming video to the function of a rearview mirror, so that the driver's vision and safety can be enhanced. The technology will debut on the 2016 Cadillac ...

Sony faces 4th ex-employee lawsuit over hack

1 hour ago

A former director of technology for Sony Pictures Entertainment has sued the company over the data breach that resulted in the online posting of his private financial and personal information.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.