An improvement has been made in the design of a compact, highly stable mercury-ion clock to suppress a loss of ions as they are transferred between the quadrupole and higher multipole ion traps. Such clocks are being developed for use aboard spacecraft for navigation and planetary radio science. The modification is also applicable to ion clocks operating on Earth: indeed, the success of the modification has been demonstrated in construction and operation of a terrestrial breadboard prototype of the compact, highly stable mercury-ion clock.

Selected aspects of the breadboard prototype at different stages of development were described in previous NASA Tech Briefs articles. The following background information is reviewed from previous articles: In this clock as in some prior ion clocks, mercury ions are shuttled between two ion traps, one a 16-pole linear radio-frequency trap, while the other is a quadrupole radio-frequency trap. In the quadrupole trap, ions are tightly confined and optical state selection from a 202Hg lamp is carried out. In the 16-pole trap, the ions are more loosely confined and atomic transitions are interrogated by use of a microwave beam at approximately 40.507 GHz. The trapping of ions effectively eliminates the frequency pulling that would otherwise be caused by collisions between clock atoms and the wall of a gas cell. The shuttling of the ions between the two traps enables separation of the state-selection process from the clock microwave-resonance process, so that each of these processes can be optimized independently of the other. This is similar to the operation of an atomic beam clock, except that with ions the “beam” can be halted and reversed as ions are shuttled back and forth between the two traps.

When the two traps are driven at the same radio frequency, the strength of confinement can be reduced near the junction between the two traps, depending upon the relative phase of the RF voltage used to operate each of the two traps, and can cause loss of ions during each transit between the traps and thereby cause loss of the 40.507-GHz ion-clock resonance signal.

The essence of the modification is to drive the two traps at different frequencies — typically between 1.5 and 2 MHz for the quadrupole trap and a frequency a few hundred kHz higher for the 16-pole trap. A frequency difference of a few hundred kHz ensures that the ion motion caused by the trapping electric fields is small relative to the diameter of the traps. Unlike in the case in which both traps are driven at the same frequency, the trapping electric fields near the junction are not zero at all times; instead, the regions of low electric field near the junction open and close at the difference frequency. An additional benefit of making the 16-pole trap operate at higher frequency is that the strength or depth of the multipole trap can be increased independent of the quadrupole ion trap.

This work was done by John Prestage and Sang Chung of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

Innovative Technology Assets Management JPL Mail Stop 202-233 4800 Oak Grove Drive

Pasadena, CA 91109-8099 E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Refer to NPO-45355, volume and number of this NASA Tech Briefs issue, and the page number.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2010 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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