Subatomic particles rain down on Earth from space
New research from the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee found computer crashes and smartphone freezes may be caused by electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays originating outside our solar system.
Vanderbilt Professor Bharat Bhuva describes it as a “big problem, but mostly invisible to the public.”
The study found cosmic rays travelling at a fraction of the speed of light strike the Earth’s atmosphere, creating cascades of secondary particles.
According to Professor Bhuva, millions of these particles strike the human body each second – although we don’t feel them, and they have no known harmful effects on any living organism.
It is a big problem, but mostly invisible to the public.
Professor Bharat Bhuva
However, things are less than positive when it comes to technology.
Scientists found that just a fraction of these particles can carry enough energy to interfere with microelectronic circuitry.
When they interact with integrated circuits, they are capable of alerting individual bits of data stored in memory – known as a single-event upset (SEU).
Inside the Large Hadron Collider
Tue, October 20, 2015
Pictures of The Large Hadron Collider which is the worlds most powerful particle accelerator held in Geneva, Switzerland.
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The Large Hadron Collider CMS detecter held in Geneva, Switzerland
The research also concluded that as it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike – along with the lack of any physical damage – the malfunctions they subsequently cause are incredibly difficult to characterise.
As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward.
Professor Bhuva explained: “When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes.
“It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes.”
However, while it may be hard to identify these instances, the problems they can cause are often extremely serious.
The particles can affect electronic gadgets – like your phone
For example, in 2003 a bit flip in an electronic voting machine in the Belgian town of Schaerbeek caused 4,096 extra votes to go to one candidate.
The error was spotted after the glitch gave the candidate more votes than were possible and it was traced to a single bit flip in the machine’s register.
In another example dating back to 2008, the avionics system of a Qantas passenger jet flying from Singapore to Perth appeared to suffer from a single-event upset that caused the autopilot to disengage.
As a result, the aircraft dropped 690 feet in only 23 seconds, injuring about a third of the passengers seriously enough to cause the aircraft to divert to the nearest airstrip.
The particles are generated by cosmic rays originating outside our solar system
According to Professor Bhuva, there have been a number of unexplained glitches in airline computers – some of which experts feel must have been caused by SEUs – that have resulted in cancellation of hundreds of flights resulting in significant economic losses.
He said: “The semiconductor manufacturers are very concerned about this problem because it is getting more serious as the size of the transistors in computer chips shrink and the power and capacity of our digital systems increase.
“In addition, microelectronic circuits are everywhere and our society is becoming increasingly dependent on them.” He added: “It is only the consumer electronics sector that has been lagging behind in addressing this problem.
“This is a major problem for industry and engineers, but it isn’t something that members of the general public need to worry much about.”