Posted: February 17th, 2017, 9:44am EST
You may not realize it but alien subatomic particles raining down from outer space are wreaking low-grade havoc on your smartphones, computers and other personal electronic devices. When your computer crashes and you get the dreaded blue screen or your smartphone freezes and you have to go through the time-consuming process of a reset, most likely you blame the manufacturer: Microsoft or Apple or Samsung. In many instances, however, these operational failures may be caused by the impact of electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays that originate outside the solar system. "This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," said Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, in a presentation on Friday, Feb. 17 at a session titled "Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. When cosmic rays traveling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth's atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles. Millions of these particles strike your body each second. Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU. Since it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike and they do not do any physical damage, the malfunctions they cause are very difficult to characterize. As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward. "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," Bhuva explained.