CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- If the day seems a little longer than usual on Saturday, June 30, 2012, that's because it will be. An extra second, or "leap" second, will be added at midnight to account for the fact that it is taking Earth longer and longer to complete one full turn—a day—or, technically, a solar day.
"The solar day is gradually getting longer because Earth's rotation is slowing down ever so slightly," says Daniel MacMillan of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Scientists know exactly how long it takes Earth to rotate because they have been making that measurement for decades using an extremely precise technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). VLBI measurements are made daily by an international network of stations that team up to conduct observations at the same time and correlate the results. NASA Goddard provides essential coordination of these measurements, as well as processing and archiving the data collected. And NASA is helping to lead the development of the next generation of VLBI system through the agency's Space Geodesy Project, led by Goddard.
From VLBI, scientists have learned that Earth is not the most reliable timekeeper. The planet's rotation is slowing down overall because of tidal forces between Earth and the moon. Roughly every 100 years, the day gets about 1.4 milliseconds, or 1.4 thousandths of a second, longer. Granted, that's about 100 or 200 times faster than the blink of an eye. But if you add up that small discrepancy every day for years and years, it can make a very big difference indeed.
"At the time of the dinosaurs, Earth completed one rotation in about 23 hours," says MacMillan, who is a member of the VLBI team at NASA Goddard. "In the year 1820, a rotation took exactly 24 hours, or 86,400 standard seconds. Since 1820, the mean solar day has increased by about 2.5 milliseconds."
By the 1950s, scientists had already realized that some scientific measurements and technologies demanded more precise timekeeping than Earth's rotation could provide. So, in 1967, they officially changed the definition of a second. No longer was it based on the length of a day but on an extremely predictable measurement made of electromagnetic transitions in atoms of cesium. These "atomic clocks" based on cesium are accurate to one second in 1,400,000 years. Most people around the world rely on the time standard based on the cesium atom: Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).
The official bulletin was issued by the Earth Orientation Center of the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service in Paris, France to atomic time keepers around the globe, inlcuding the U.S. Naval Observatory.
The last time a Leap Second was introduced was at the end of December 2008.
The instructions given for introduction of the 2012 June 30 Leap Second to time keepers are as follows:
A positive leap second will be introduced at the end of June 2012. The sequence of dates of the UTC second markers will be: 2012 June 30, 23h 59m 59s 2012 June 30, 23h 59m 60s 2012 July 1, 0h 0m 0s
The difference between UTC and the International Atomic Time TAI is: from 2009 January 1, 0h UTC, to 2012 July 1 0h UTC : UTC-TAI = - 34s from 2012 July 1, 0h UTC, until further notice : UTC-TAI = - 35s Leap seconds can be introduced in UTC at the end of the months of December or June, depending on the evolution of UT1-TAI. Bulletin C is mailed every six months, either to announce a time step in UTC or to confirm that there will be no time step at the next possible date.
Sources: NASA and U.S. Naval Observatory