Researchers from Vanderbilt University have found that some computer crashes are triggered by electrically charged particles coming from cosmic rays passing through Earth’s atmosphere.
Cosmic rays are high-speed atomic nuclei created by large space events like supernova explosions. Though they commonly have low energy, galactic cosmic rays are stronger. Earth’s magnetic field usually protects us from those strong blasts, but electronics are not as safe.
Certain surges — known as single-event upsets (SEUs) — interfere with the circuitry of certain devices and cause them to briefly malfunction. While these electrically charged particles are unlikely to cause bodily harm to anyone on Earth, they can cause low-grade havoc on personal electronic devices like laptops and smartphones.
It takes only a small number of particles — including pions, muons, and energetic neutrons — to create enough energy to interfere with a device. In the event of an SUE, the energy surge alters integrated circuitry and changes bits of the stored data. This shift can lead to numerous problems, from something as simple as moving a pixel in a photo to something as big as causing a device to crash.
Though this may seem like a small problem, it could become a larger issue as the world becomes more and more dependent on electronic devices. In 2003, an SEU caused a electronic voting machine to register an extra 4,000 votes, and in 2008 another caused a passenger jet flying to Perth to drop 690 feet in 23 seconds.
“This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public,” said Bharat Bhuva, the professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, according to International Business Times UK. “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.”
Not only could such issues become more frequent as time goes on, but SEUs are also very hard to detect. In fact, scientists can only figure out they are the cause of a problem when all other possible factors have been eliminated. That means, even if they do occur more often, they will not become easier to deal with.
“Our study confirms that this is a serious and growing problem. This did not come as a surprise. Through our research on radiation effects on electronic circuits developed for military and space applications, we have been anticipating such effects on electronic systems operating in the terrestrial environment,” added Bhuva, according to Tech Times.
These new findings were outlined at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.