Electrically charged particles from cosmic rays may interfere with smartphones and computers. These cosmic rays originate from outside the solar system. When they enter Earth’s atmosphere, they break up into subatomic particles including neutrons, muons, pions, and alpha particles. These particles strike the body without consequence, but electronic devices are susceptible to damage.
One way subatomic particles can disrupt electronic devices is by creating a single-event upset (SEU). This occurs when bits of memory are altered. The most notable example of this took place in 2003 in Schaerbeek, Belgium when an electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one of the candidates. The cause was determined to be a single bit flip in the machine’s register. Another example involved a Qantus passenger jet that disengaged its autopilot mode in 2008. A third of the passengers were injured when the plane dove 690 feet in only 23 seconds.
Researchers at Cypress Semiconductors determined how likely it is for devices to malfunction as a result of cosmic rays in 2004. The results were published in Electronic Design News. Here’s a copy of the findings:
- A simple cell phone with 500 kilobytes of memory should only have one potential error every 28 years.
- A router farm like those used by Internet providers with only 25 gigabytes of memory may experience one potential networking error that interrupts their operation every 17 hours.
- A person flying in an airplane at 35,000 feet (where radiation levels are considerably higher than they are at sea level) who is working on a laptop with 500 kilobytes of memory may experience one potential error every five hours.
To shield electronics from energetic particles, a 10 foot barrier made of concrete is required. Another solution is to manufacturer computer chips in triplicate so that the processor is less likely to produce a bit flip (0 to 1 or 1 to 0).
The effects of space particles on electronic devices were presented by Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University on February 17 in Boston at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The presentation was titled: Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather.