Have you ever wondered how your smartphone can know exactly where you are when using Google Maps or when posting a Facebook status? This is done through an orbiting satellite that keeps time to the beat of an atomic clock: While each satellite broadcasts radio signals that travel from space to smartphones all around the world at the speed of light, they record the signal time of arrival and calculate how long the signal traveled.

Don’t think this is an easy task, though…we live on a big planet! In order to calculate distance with such precision, atomic clocks are needed. Just like old clocks needed the constant swinging of a pendulum under gravity, atomic clocks are maintained by the transition between two energy levels of an atom. To put things into perspective, every pendulum, quartz crystal or other mechanism resonates on slightly different frequencies, while atomic clocks run on Cesium 133 atoms which oscillate at the same exact frequency.

Thanks to atomic clocks, we get a time reading accurate to within 1 billionth of a second, measuring distance from that satellite with the most exact precision known to mankind. This technology has allowed new industries to develop, allowing for better express deliveries, giving drivers the opportunity to locate themselves easily without a physical map, and providing websites with location data of their users and offer them better services based on where they are! So, next time you give access to your smartphone and apps to know your exact location, think of all the work that’s happening in the background. Kinda cool, right?

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