Time standard

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A time standard is a specification for measuring time: either the rate at which time passes; or points in time; or both. In modern times, several time specifications have been officially recognized as standards, where formerly they were matters of custom and practice. An example of a kind of time standard can be a time scale, specifying a method for measuring divisions of time. A standard for civil time can specify both time intervals and time-of-day.

Standardized time measurements are made using a clock to count periods of some cyclic change, which may be either the changes of a natural phenomenon or of an artificial machine.

Historically, time standards were often based on the Earth's rotational period. From the late 17th century to the 19th century it was assumed that the Earth's daily rotational rate was constant.[1] Astronomical observations of several kinds, including eclipse records, studied in the 19th century, raised suspicions that the rate at which Earth rotates is gradually slowing and also shows small-scale irregularities, and this was confirmed in the early twentieth century.[2] Time standards based on Earth rotation were replaced (or initially supplemented) for astronomical use from 1952 onwards by an ephemeris time standard based on the Earth's orbital period and in practice on the motion of the Moon. The invention in 1955 of the cesium atomic clock has led to the replacement of older and purely astronomical time standards, for most practical purposes, by newer time standards based wholly or partly on atomic time.

Various types of second and day are used as the basic time interval for most time scales. Other intervals of time (minutes, hours, and years) are usually defined in terms of these two.


Time standards based on Earth rotation

Apparent solar time ('apparent' is often used in English-language sources, but 'true' in French astronomical literature[3]) is based on the solar day, which is the period between one solar noon (passage of the real Sun across the meridian) and the next. A solar day is approximately 24 hours of mean time. Because the Earth's orbit around the sun is elliptical, and because of the obliquity of the Earth's axis relative to the plane of the orbit (the ecliptic), the apparent solar day varies a few dozen seconds above or below the mean value of 24 hours. As the variation accumulates over a few weeks, there are differences as large as 16 minutes between apparent solar time and mean solar time (see Equation of time). However, these variations cancel out over a year. There are also other perturbations such as Earth's wobble, but these are less than a second per year.

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