You are on page 1of 2

Time Scales in Satellite Geodesy

In general there are three different time systems that are used in space geodesy
Dynamical time
Atomic time
Sidereal time
See Figure 1 for a diagrammetric representation of the relationship between the
time systems.

Dynamical Time

Dynamical time is required to describe the motion of bodies in a particular refe
rence frame and according to a particular gravitational theory. Today, General R
elativity and an inertial (non-accelerating) reference frame are fundamental con
cepts. The most nearly inertial reference frame to which we have access through
gravitational theory has its origin located at the centre-of-mass of the solar s
ystem (the barycentre). Dynamical time measured in this system is called Barycen
tric Dynamical Time (TDB -- the abbreviation for this and most other time scales
reflects the French order of the words). A clock fixed on the earth will exhibi
t periodic variations as large as 1.6 milliseconds with respect to TDB due to th
e motion of the earth in the sun's gravitational field. However, in describing t
he orbital motion of near-earth satellites we need not use TDB, nor account for
these relativistic variations, since both the satellite and the earth itself are
subject to essentially the same perturbations.
For satellite orbit computations it is common to use Terrestrial Dynamical Time
(TDT), which represents a uniform time scale for motion within the earth's gravi
ty field and which has the same rate as that of an atomic clock on the earth, an
d is in fact defined by that rate (see below). In the terminology of General Rel
ativity, TDB corresponds to Coordinate Time, and TDT to Proper Time. The predece
ssor of TDB was known as Ephemeris Time (ET).
Figure 1 shows the relationship between this and other time scales.

Atomic Time

The fundamental time scale for all the earth's time-keeping is International Ato
mic Time (TAI). It results from analyses by the Bureau International des Poids e
t Mesures (BIPM) in SÈvres, France, of data from atomic frequency standards (atomi
c "clocks") in many countries. (Prior to 1 January, 1988, this function was carr
ied out by the Bureau International de l'Heure.) TAI is a continuous time scale
and serves as the practical definition of TDT, being related to it by:
TDT = TAI + 32.184 seconds
The fundamental unit of TAI (and therefore TDT) is the SI second, defined as "th
e duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transitio
n between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom". The
SI day is defined as 86400 seconds and the Julian Century as 36525 days.
Because TAI is a continuous time scale, it has one fundamental problem in practi
cal use: the earth's rotation with respect to the sun is slowing down by a varia
ble amount which averages, at present, about 1 second per year. Thus TAI would e
ventually become inconveniently out of synchronisation with the solar day. This
problem has been overcome by introducing Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which
runs at the same rate as TAI, but is incremented by 1 second jumps ( so-called
"leap seconds") when necessary, normally at the end of June or December of each
year. During the period mid-1994 to the end of 1995, one needed to add 29 second
s to UTC clock readings to obtain time expressed in the TAI scale.
The time signals broadcast by the GPS satellites are synchronised with atomic cl
ocks at the GPS Master Control Station, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. These clo
cks define GPS Time (GPST), and are in turn periodically compared with UTC, as r
ealised by the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. GPST was set to UTC at
0hr on 6 January, 1980, and is not incremented by leap seconds. As a result ther
e will be integer-second differences between the two time scales. For example, i
n December 1994 clocks running on GPST were offset from UTC by 10 seconds. There
is therefore a constant offset of 19 seconds between the GPST and TAI time scal
GPST + 19 seconds = TAI
Figure 1 shows the relationship between this and other time scales.

Solar and Sidereal Time

A measure of earth rotation is the angle between a particular reference meridian
of longitude (preferably the Greenwich meridian) and the meridian of a celestia
l body. The most common form of solar time is Universal Time (UT) (not to be con
fused with UTC, which is an atomic time scale). UT is defined by the Greenwich h
our angle (augmented by 12 hours) of a fictitious sun uniformly orbiting in the
equatorial plane. However, the scale is not uniform because of oscillations of t
he earth's rotational axis. UT corrected for polar motion is denoted