Category Archives: DCF77

DCF77 vs. GPS time comparison: not a lot of uncertainty…

Some folks were asking about the accuracy of the DCF77 10 MHz standard described earlier, DCF77 10 MHz – which has an Piezo brand OCXO, steered by a long-time-constant PLL locked to the DCF77 77.5 kHz carrier.

But, how to assess the short and long term stability of such a ‘standard’ in practical terms? Well, short term accuracy – it will simply be that of the Piezo OCXO, and some noise injected by the power supply. Mid- and long term, the drift will be determined by the DCF77 master clock (which is dead accurate), and the propagation conditions of the long wave signal (which is by far worse).

With my location at Ludwigshafen, Germany, I’m reasonably close to the DCF77 transmitter – maybe 70 miles? So there is hope that the transmission induced effects are not all that bad.

To measure the mid and long term stability, see below two plots of the DCF77-locked phase of the Piezo OCXO, vs. the instantaneous phase of GPS, stable to 40 ns or better, and obtained from a Motorola M12+ timing receiver. Measurements were done by measuring the time interval from the GPS 1 PPS signal, to the rising edge of a 10 kHz signal – derived from the 10 MHz OCXO by a good divider (using a ADF41020 REF input – R divider routed to MUX output) by HP 5335A counter.

dcf dcf vs gps time day 57603

dcf dcf vs gps time day 57604

In short – DCF77 is tracking GPS extremely well, and the OCXO phase is stable to within a few 10 to 100 ns. In practical terms, 1 second of observation time would be well enough to calibrate any frequency standard to 1 ppm or better, by comparison with the DCF77 locked OCXO. In other words, the DCF77 locked OCXO instability appears to be dominated by the propagation of the DCF77 signal more then anything else.

DCF77 Frequency Reference: a resonably accurate 10 MHz source

For those out there that need a good 10 MHz source to calibrate their counters – there is an easy method, at least in Europe – the DCF77 transmitter, near Frankfurt. It uses a 77.5 kHz carrier, which is kept very close to 77.5 kHz, all the time, and puts out about 30 kW of power. The carrier is controlled to within 2*10^-13, way better than I need.

To make use of these waves, I build a little receiver, using a tuned circuit, a FET pre-amp (which is located in a plastic case, several meters away from the bench, to avoid interference.
The 77.5 kHz signal is then converted to a square wave by a limiter circuit, and phase-compared to a 77.5 kHz derived from a 10 MHz OCXO. For the OCXO, I used a Piezo brand Model 2920136, but any reasonably good 10 MHz OCXO will do.

piezo 2920136

No need to go to a rubidium oscillator, which will only consume a lot of power and wear out over the years.

dcf77 input

dcf77 limiter

The amplified signal is also available at a rear BNC connector, for troubleshooting, and to find the best spot for the antenna (just connect a scope and align antenna orientation/place for best amplitude).

The tricky part – deriving a 77.5 KHz signal from a 10 MHz source. This requires a fractional divider. First, the 10 MHz signal is divided down to 310 kHz (4x 77.5 kHz), followed by two :2 dividers (74F74 flip-flops). This will give fast transitions, and exact 50:50 duty cycle.

The 10 MHz to 310 kHz divider is implemented using an ATMega8515 (you can use any other microcontroller that can handle a 10 MHz clock). The program does a simple trick – it generates 31 transitions for any 1000 clocks; and it does this with reasonably well distributed jitter.
7 blocks, with 33-32-32-32 cycles; and 1 block with 33-32-32 cycles; in total: 23 sequences with 32 cycles, and 8 sequences with 33 cycles – a total of 1000 cycles over 31 sequences. I am so glad that microcontrollers exist, this would have taken quite a few TTL circuits to realize this hard-wired.

dcf77r_p.c AVR GCC file

dcf77 divider pll

The PLL, build around a 4046 has a long time constant, several minutes, however, you could improve the frequency stability by using a constant of several hours – which is not quite practical, and also not necessary, for the given purpose (to provide a reference that is accurate and stable to better than 1 ppm, and that has a phase stability of better than a few microseconds).

dcf77 aux

dcf77 output

Some auxilliary circuits, for the lock detector, and the outputs. Outputs are TTL, but you can also add some transformers, resonant circuits, etc., in case you need other signals. I found these TTL signal very suitable to lock all kinds of test equipment, and never had any issues with ground loops so far. If you do phase noise measurements, I would recommend to use a local Rb reference anyway, or a free-running precision/low noise OCXO, not the output of this device.

dcf77 view 1
Note the shielding of the input circuit, using some copper clad board. A bit curde but works.

dcf77 view 2

The thing, put into a nice box:

dcf77 front

After some days of monitoring the output phase vs. a GPS-adjusted Rb oscillator – the device is working just fine. There are some phase fluctuations, most likely, due to the propagation of the 77.5 kHz waves, and these cause phase shifts of about 1 ┬Ás. Well, just temporary shifts, and by all means good enough to calibrate any OCXO to full resolution.

Why not use a GPS disciplined oscillator, or a Rb oscillator? Well, the GPS signal, who knows when they will shut it down; and it needs a rather facy antenna, and, you can’t build it from scratch (well, you can, but would be a major effort!). Why not a Rb oscillator, well, I actually have a good Rb, but rarely use it, because it needs so much power, and way too accurate for the general tasks at hand – rather have the DCF77 running, which only needs very little power and generates no heat; and, the OCXO won’t wear out so soon!

DCF77 – Tell me, how far do these waves travel?

For those of you who don’t know, Germany has a time signal and frequency standard station, a 77.5 kHz carrier, emitted at a place near Frankfurt. About 50 kW of power – enough to provide most of Western Europe with perfectly accurate time. Radio controlled clocks have become the de-facto standard, in most of these places, and are available for a few Euros, amazingly cheap.

While this is all common knowledge, it was definitely news to me that this signal can be picked up in the US, at least at the East Coast – New York area, where I currently reside. These news came from a very much trustworthy fellow German, just a few miles away – he carried a radio controlled alarm clock over from Germany. And one day it started receiving a signal, and set itself back to German time.

Definitely, time for some experimentation.

The setup:

(1) A well-tuned ferrite antenna (same as is used in alarm clocks), with a little J-FET preamp. Additionally, a long wire (about 10 m/30 ft), connected to the hot end of the tuned circuit.
(if you need a schematic, just ask, works with a J310 J-FET)

(2) A long coaxial cable to get the antenna out of near field interferences.

(3) A xtal filter and amplifier/driver – to provide adequate signal levels.
(if you need a schematic, just ask, uses a NPN transistor, and an OPA703 CMOS rail-to-rail opamp)

(4) Monitoring of the signal, via PC soundcard, and Spectrum Lab software.

Current status:

So far, not a trace of the 77.5 kHz carrier has been received, even using a most sensitive HPAK 3585A spectrum analyzer – maybe, I just need to wait for better propagation conditions, to get these long waves over the ocean.

To be continued…