Next time your computer or laptop crashes or your smartphone stops responding, don’t blame the manufacturer of the device as new study has claimed that this could have been caused by subatomic particles from space.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University in the US have claimed that operational failures in gadgets may be caused by electrically charged particles from space that bombard our Earth every second. While it is a huge problem, these particles are invisible and so we can’t see them affecting our gadgets.
When cosmic rays travelling 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.
Sometimes these subatomic particles may be carrying 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 characterise. As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward.
There have been a number of incidents that illustrate how serious the problem can be, researchers say citing an 2003 incident in the town of Schaerbeek, Belgium wherein a bit flip in an electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The error was only detected because it gave the candidate more votes than were possible and it was traced to a single bit flip in the machine’s register, researchers said.
In 2008, the avionics system of a Qantus 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 dove 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.
In addition, 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.