Tuesday, September 13, 2011

About Time...

I know that I haven't been posting as much as I usually do (I like to post once a week) but life gets in my way.  For example, I had a tooth break that needed fixed and both my husband and I have come down with the cold that has been making its way around the observatory.  Basically, between life and getting work done, I haven't had a lot of time.

But today is an important day since we will reach GPS time 1,000,000,000.  This time is measured in seconds from Sunday January 6, 1980 at midnight UTC (this is the official time of the planet measured at the Prime Meridian passing through Greenwich, England) without any leap second corrections to match the rotation of the Earth (astronomers use a similar time keeping method called Julian Date which is the number of days since January 1, 4713 BC without any corrections for outright changes to the calendar [like to the Gregorian calendar - which is the calendar we use today]).  Here at LIGO, this is important to us since this is how we measure the official time for everything and this time needs to be very accurate since we will never believe a potential gravitational wave detection unless it is measured at different observatories within the time it would take a it to travel between the sites - for the two LIGO observatories, the maximum time is 10 milliseconds.

Other than it being cool to watch the time roll over to one billion (like watching your car odometer roll over to 100,000 miles) this event can cause issues with the data analysis programs that we write to search for gravitational waves.  For example, I wrote a software package while I was in grad school that we still use to produce simulations to test the efficiency of data analysis software.  My baby is called GravEn (for GRAVitational-wave ENgine) and uses the GPS time to determine where the simulations will be added to the real data (this data with fake signals is never saved together so that we don't trick ourselves into thinking we saw something real).  GravEn has specifications in its programing to return the time of the simulation in whole GPS seconds in one column of the log file and the nanoseconds after that time in another column.  I have made it so that the whole-second time is returned with 9 digits and this is now an issue since the time will be 10 digits.  It is easy enough to fix, but it must be fixed!

This new 1,000,000,000 time is not going to be of any serious concern like people feared the Y2K bug to be.  Instead, all of us code monkeys (as computer programers are lovingly referred to) need to go back and make sure that we allow enough (10) digits in the parts of our programs that use GPS time.

So, GPS 1,000,000,000 will happen today (September 14) at 1:46:25 UTC (or September 13 at 9:46:25 PM in Eastern Daylight Time).


My next blog post will be on Thursday and will answer the reader question on exactly what kind of gravitational waves Einstein@home seeks and how it looks for them.