We think of crystals as the gold standard of frequency generation. However, if you want real precision, you need something either better than a crystal or something that will correct for tiny errors — often called disciplining the oscillator. [W3AXL] picked up a rubidium reference oscillator on eBay at a low cost, and he shows us how it works in the video you can see below. He started with a GPS-disciplined oscillator he had built earlier and planned to convert it to discipline from the rubidium clock.
The connector looks like a D-shell connector superficially, but it has a coax connector in addition to the usual pins. The device did work on initial powerup, and using a lissajous pattern to compare the existing oscillator with the new device worked well.
A metrology geek will go to extreme lengths to ensure that their measurements are the best, their instruments the most accurate, and their calibration spot-on. There was a time when for time-and-frequency geeks this would have been a difficult job, but with the advent of GPS satellites overhead carrying super-accurate atomic clocks it’s surprisingly easy to be right on-frequency. [Land-boards] have a GPS 10 MHz clock that’s based around a set of modules.
Since many GPS modules have a 10 MHz output one might expect that this one to simply hook a socket to the module and have done, but instead it uses another of their projects, a fast edge pulse generator with the GPS output as its oscillator, as a buffer and signal conditioner. Add to that an QT Py microcontroller board to set up the GPS, and there you have a standalone 10 MHz source to rival any standard. Full details can be found on the project’s wiki, and the firmware can be found on GitHub.
Making a microcontroller perform as a frequency counter is a relatively straightforward task involving the measurement of the time period during which a number of pulses are counted. The maximum frequency is however limited to a fraction of the microcontroller’s clock speed and the accuracy of the resulting instrument depends on that of the clock crystal so it will hardly result in the best of frequency counters. It’s something [FrankBuss] has approached with an Arduino-based counter that offloads the timing question to a host PC, and thus claims atomic accuracy due to its clock being tied to a master source via NTP. The Rust code PC-side provides continuous readings whose accuracy increases the longer it is left counting the source. The example shown reaches 20 parts per billion after several hours reading a 1 MHz source.
It’s clear that this is hardly the most convenient of frequency counters, however we can see that it could find a use for anyone intent on monitoring the long-term stability of a source, and could even be used with some kind of feedback to discipline an RF source against the NTP clock with the use of an appropriate prescaler. Its true calling might come though not in measurement but in calibration of another instrument which can be adjusted to match its reading once it has settled down. There’s surely no cheaper way to satisfy your inner frequency standard nut.
We normally think of atomic clocks as the gold standard in timekeeping. The very definition of a second — in modern times, at least — is 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of a stationary cesium-133 atom at a temperature of 0K. But there is a move to replace that definition using optical clocks that are 100 times more accurate than a standard atomic clock.
In recent news, the Boulder Atomic Clock Optical Network — otherwise known as BACON — compared times from three optical clocks and found that the times differed a little more than they had predicted, but the clocks were still amazingly accurate relative to each other. Some of the links used optical fibers, a method used before. But there were also links carried by lasers aimed from one facility to another. The lasers, however didn’t work during a snowstorm, but when they did work the results were comparable to the optical fiber method.
For those of us who like to wrangle electrons from time to time, there are some exceptional deals out there for low (or at least lower) cost imported test equipment. If you’re willing to part with a few hundred dollars US, you can get some serious hardware that a decade ago would have been effectively outside the reach of the hobbyist. Right now you can order a four channel oscilloscope for less than what a new Xbox costs; but which one you’ll rack up more hours staring at slack-jawed is up to you.
Of course, these “cheap” pieces of equipment aren’t always perfect. [Paul Lutus] was pretty happy with his relatively affordable Siglent SDG 1025 Arbitrary Function Generator, but found its accuracy to be a bit lacking. Fortunately, the function generator accepts an external clock which can be used to increase its accuracy, so he decided to build one.
[Paul] starts off by going over the different options he considered for this project, essentially boiling down to whether or not he wanted to jump through the extra hoops required for an oven-controlled crystal oscillator (OCXO). But the decision was effectively made for him when his first attempt at using a more simplistic temperature controlled oscillator failed due to an unfortunate misjudgment in terms of package size.
In the end, he decided to spring for the OCXO, and was able to use the USB port on the front panel of the SDG 1025 to provide the power necessary for the crystal to warm up and remain at operating temperature. After he got the oscillator powered, he just needed to put it in a suitable metal enclosure (to cut down external interference) and calibrate it. [Paul] cleverly used the NIST WWV broadcast and his ears to find when his frequency standard overlapped that of the source, therefore verifying it was at 10 MHz.
Do you remember your first instrument, the first device you used to measure something? Perhaps it was a ruler at primary school, and you were taught to see distance in terms of centimetres or inches. Before too long you learned that these units are only useful for the roughest of jobs, and graduated to millimetres, or sixteenths of an inch. Eventually as you grew older you would have been introduced to the Vernier caliper and the micrometer screw gauge, and suddenly fractions of a millimetre, or thousandths of an inch became your currency. There is a seduction to measurement, something that draws you in until it becomes an obsession.
Every field has its obsessives, and maybe there are bakers seeking the perfect cup of flour somewhere out there, but those in our community will probably focus on quantities like time and frequency. You will know them by their benches surrounded by frequency standards and atomic clocks, and their constant talk of parts per billion, and of calibration. I can speak with authority on this matter, for I used to be one of them in a small way; I am a reformed frequency standard nut. Continue reading “Confessions Of A Reformed Frequency Standard Nut”→
Accurate timing is one of the most basic requirements for so much of the technology we take for granted, yet how many of us pause to consider the component that enables us to have it? The quartz crystal is our go-to standard when we need an affordable, known, and stable clock frequency for our microprocessors and other digital circuits. Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at it.
The first electronic oscillators at radio frequencies relied on the electrical properties of tuned circuits featuring inductors and capacitors to keep them on-frequency. Tuned circuits are cheap and easy to produce, however their frequency stability is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature and vibration. Thus an RF oscillator using a tuned circuit can drift by many kHz over the period of its operation, and its timing can not be relied upon. Long before accurate timing was needed for computers, the radio transmitters of the 1920s and 1930s needed to stay on frequency, and considerable effort had to be maintained to keep a tuned-circuit transmitter on-target. The quartz crystal was waiting to swoop in and save us this effort.