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Cosmic rays crashing into the Earth’s atmosphere create a range of particles, including protons, electrons, X-rays and gamma-rays that can penetrate aircraft
Tiny cosmic particles can have serious impacts on Earth, causing election votes to be miscounted, planes to free-fall and computers to reboot, scientists say.
These cosmic particles can hit electronic devices on Earth, which can cause components to burn out and cause malfunctions.
Cosmic particles come from cosmic rays from outside our solar system. They crash into the Earth’s atmosphere creating a range of particles, including protons, electrons, X-rays and gamma-rays that can penetrate aircraft.
These cosmic particles constantly hit Earth, and can cause bits of information in electronics to change.
When a machine malfunctions in this way, it’s called a Single Event Upset (SEU).
These changes can be enough to cause a computer to freeze and reboot, affecting the outcome of computerized elections.
They can also cause other problems such as causing planes to suddenly come out of autopilot mode.
Professor Bharat Bhuva, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University, gave a talk about this problem at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
During his presentation, he said: ‘This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public.
‘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.’
In this time-lapse photo, stars appear to rotate above the Middle Drum facility of the Telescope Array, a $25 million cosmic ray observatory that sprawls across the desert west of Delta, Utah. Physicists from the University of of Utah and the University of Tokyo and elsewhere report the observatory has detected a hot spot in the northern sky emitting a disproportionate number of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, which are the most energetic particles in the universe
Professor Bhuva said that an SEU is could happen for more than one reason, and it’s only possible to say it was caused by a tiny particle if all other possible reasons have been excluded.
But these SEU events can have an impact on safety as well as socio-economic issues such as elections.
For example, in 2003 in the town of Schaerbeek in Belgium, an SEU malfunction gave a candidate in a location election 4,096 additional votes – and the error was only caught because the candidate got more than was possible, so it was investigated.
And in a Qantas flight from Singapore to Perth, an SEU caused the plane to come out of autopilot mode, which resulted in the plane free-falling for 23 seconds and injured approximately one third of the passengers.
The more powerful the computer in question is, the more common the SEU problem is.
The problem is also more common on planes, as when they fly at 35,000 feet, radiation levels are higher.
But trying to prevent this problem is very difficult – as it would require a wall of concrete more than three metres (10 feet) thick to stop the particles.
So Professor Bhuva suggests making a computer processor in triplicate as a safety back up.
This is the same system that NASA uses for their computers in space.
The probability that SEUs will occur in two of the circuits at the same time is vanishingly small,’ Professor Bhuva said.
‘So if two circuits produce the same result it should be correct,’ he said.
WHAT ARE COSMIC RAYS?
A long-standing puzzle in astrophysics is the source of ultra-high-energy particles from space that hit Earth.
Called cosmic rays, they’re up to a billion times more energetic than particles at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider.
They strike the atmosphere and cause an enormous shower of other particles, mostly muons, electrons and photons, over a wide area.
Travelers flying polar routes to Asia or Europe can receive radiation doses that are up to three-times higher than near the equator
Though they were discovered decades ago, cosmic rays at these high energies are very rare, making it difficult to pinpoint where in the universe they originated.
It’s thought that some come from supernovae, but it’s likely there are other sources of cosmic rays in the universe as well.