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The ions then travel through a magnetic field, which diverts them into different sampling sensors, known as "Faraday cups", depending on their mass and level of ionization.On impact in the cups, the ions set up a very weak current that can be measured to determine the rate of impacts and the relative concentrations of different atoms in the beams.Accuracy is enhanced if measurements are taken on different samples taken from the same rock body but at different locations. The precision of a method of dating depends in part on the half-life of the radioactive isotope involved.For instance, carbon-14 has a half-life of less than 6000 years.This transformation is accomplished by the emission of particles such as electrons (known as beta decay) or alpha particles.While the moment in time at which a particular nucleus decays is random, a collection of atoms of a radioactive nuclide decays exponentially at a rate described by a parameter known as the half-life, usually given in units of years when discussing dating techniques.The isotope used in uranium-thorium dating has a longer half-life, but other factors make it more accurate than radiocarbon dating.Radiometric dating can be performed on samples as small as a billionth of a gram using a mass spectrometer.

The mass spectrometer operates by generating a beam of ionized atoms from the sample under test.Additionally, elements may exist in different isotopes, with each isotope of an element differing only in the number of neutrons in the nucleus.A particular isotope of a particular element is called a nuclide. That is, at some random point in time, an atom of such a nuclide will be transformed into a different nuclide by the process known as radioactive decay.When a material incorporates both the parent and daughter nuclides at the time of formation, it may be necessary to assume that the initial proportions of a radioactive substance and its daughter are known.The daughter product should not be a small-molecule gas that can leak out of the material, and it must itself have a long enough half-life that it will be present in significant amounts.

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