You might have to often encounter the time-consuming hassle of restarting your computer or smartphone, which might have just crashed or frozen for no apparent reason. In such cases, you usually end up blaming the manufacturer. However, a recent study conducted by a group of scientists, including one of Indian origin, suggest that subatomic particles raining down from outer space could be the prime reason behind this.
The cosmic rays originating from outside the solar system generate these electrically charged particles, which often is the reason behind the crashes. Bharat Bhuva, Professor of electrical engineering, Vanderbilt University expresses, “The problem is of intense magnitude. However, it mostly remains invisible to the human eye.”
Cascades of secondary particles comprising energetic neutrons, muons, pions, and alpha particles are usually created when the lightspeed cosmic rays strike the Earth’s atmosphere. Millions of these particles strike the human body every second, without causing any harmful effects for living organisms. However, a fraction of these subatomic particles carry enough energy to disrupt the functioning of microelectronic circuitry. These particles can adversely alter individual bits of data stored in memory, and the incident is termed as a single-event upset or SEU.
It’s a challenging task to assert the time and place, where these space particles will strike. This in turn makes it a difficult task to characterize the malfunctions, or determine the prevalence of SEUs. Bhuva comments, “A single bit-flop is easier to inspect, it could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for instance. However, to effectively determine if it is an SEU, you have to eliminate all other possible causes.”
The problem is of serious nature, and SEUs have affected electronics in the past, ranging from voting machines to massive airlines. Moreover, unexplained glitches have been observed previously in airline computers. Experts have probed these glitches and the most probable cause turned out to be an SEU. These issues have resulted in cancellation of hundreds of flights, causing significant economic losses.