UTC divides time into days, hours, minutes and seconds. Days are conventionally identified using the Gregorian calendar, but Julian day numbers can also be used. Each day contains 24 hours and each hour contains 60 minutes. The number of seconds in a minute is usually 60, but may very rarely be 61 or 59. Thus, in the UTC time scale, the second and all smaller time units (millisecond, microsecond, etc.) are of constant duration, but the minute and all larger time units (hour, day, week, etc.) are of variable duration. Decisions to introduce a leap second are announced at least 8 weeks in advance in "Bulletin C" produced by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service. The leap seconds cannot be predicted far in advance due to the unpredictable rate of rotation of the earth.
Nearly all UTC days contain exactly 86,400 SI seconds, with exactly 60 seconds in each minute. However, because the mean solar day is slightly longer than 86,400 SI seconds, occasionally the last minute of a UTC day is adjusted to have 61 seconds. The extra second is called a leap second. It accounts for the grand total of the extra length (about 2 milliseconds each) of all the mean solar days since the previous leap second. The last minute of a UTC day is permitted to contain 59 seconds to cover the remote possibility of the Earth rotating faster, but that has not yet been necessary since UTC was introduced. The irregular day lengths mean that fractional Julian days do not work properly with UTC.
Since 1972 UTC is calculated by subtracting the accumulated leap seconds from International Atomic Time (TAI), which is a coordinate time scale tracking notional proper time on the rotating surface of the Earth (the geoid). In order to maintain a close approximation to UT1 (equivalent to GMT before 1960), UTC occasionally has discontinuities where it changes from one linear function of TAI to another. These discontinuities take the form of leap seconds implemented by a UTC day of irregular length. Discontinuities in UTC have occurred only at the end of a Gregorian month. The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) tracks and publishes the difference between UTC and Universal Time, DUT1 = UT1 – UTC, and introduces discontinuities into UTC to keep DUT1 in the interval (−0.9 s, +0.9 s). Since 1972 the discontinuities have consisted only of a leap of one second at the end of 30 June or 31 December.
As with TAI, UTC is only known with the highest precision in retrospect. Users who require an approximation in real time must obtain it from a time laboratory, which disseminates an approximation using techniques such as GPS or radio time signals. Such approximations are designated UTC(k), where k is an abbreviation for the time laboratory. The time of events may be provisionally recorded against one of these approximations; later corrections may be applied using the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) monthly publication of tables of differences between canonical TAI/UTC and TAI(k)/UTC(k) as estimated in real time by participating laboratories. (See the article on International Atomic Time for details.)
Because of time dilation, a standard clock not on the geoid, or in rapid motion, will not maintain synchronicity with UTC. Therefore, telemetry from clocks with a known relation to the geoid is used to provide UTC when required, on locations such as those of spacecraft.
UTC is a discontinuous timescale, so it is not possible to compute the exact time interval elapsed between two UTC timestamps without consulting a table that describes how many leap seconds occurred during that interval. Therefore, many scientific applications that require precise measurement of long (multi-year) intervals use TAI instead. TAI is also commonly used by systems that cannot handle leap seconds. A fixed 19‑second offset from TAI also gives GPS time.
For most common and legal-trade purposes, the fractional second difference between UTC and UT (GMT) is inconsequentially small, so UTC is often called GMT (for instance, by the BBC).
Read more about this topic: Coordinated Universal Time
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