Are outer space particles damaging our smartdevices?

May 8, 2017
by Mark Ollig

According to NASA, our atmosphere protects us against the cosmic rays colliding with Earth as efficiently as a 13-foot layer of concrete.

However, some of the cosmic rays particles (which originate outside our galaxy) traveling at fractions of the speed of light, will penetrate through this “concrete barrier.”

Space weather, containing high-energy cosmic ray ion particles, includes atmospheric showers consisting of millions of cosmic particle fragments, and blanket parts of our planet’s surface.

Luckily, we humans on the ground are not exposed to the full force of the primary cosmic rays.

We are exposed only to the secondary particles of fast-moving fragments; energetic neutrons, muons, alpha particles, and pions made up of quarks and antiquarks.

Fortunately, these fragments are at the subatomic level and have no known detrimental consequences on living organisms.

“Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather,” a presentation by Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University, was recently shown during the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston, MA.

His presentation provided insight on the effects these cosmic particles can have on computer system components and our smartdevices.

While these cosmic ray particles do contain energy, they have no ill effects on us; however, they can have a direct effect on computing components or chipsets.

In fact, some of the cosmic subatomic particles contain enough energy to drastically alter or affect the intended designed operation of an electronic components’ integrated circuitry.

This type of interruption is called a single-event upset (SEU).

We know computing devices use binary bits to process information.

What would happen if a single binary bit input unexpectedly changed state from a one to a zero when it entered into a universal digital logic gate, such as a NOR Boolean operator?

If the NOR was expecting a “0 1” input to produce a “0” output to the next logic gate in the circuitry, and the “1” input was changed, or “bit-flipped,” to a “0” sending a “0 0” input, this would cause the NOR gate output to be a “1.”

This would modify the data or specific computational processing taking place.

An example of SEU effects include an electronic voting machine adding 4,096 extra votes to a candidate because of a bit-flip in the machine’s digital register during a 2003 Belgium election; caused possibly by cosmic particle penetration of the voting machine’s digital components.

Reports of a passenger jet’s autopilot disengaging, and other “unexplained glitches” in aircraft operation, have been blamed on cosmic ray particles penetrating sensitive electronic computing devices.

These SEU events may have been caused by the infiltration of subatomic torrent of cosmic ray particles originating from – wait for it: galaxies in outer space.

“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 [SEU] is by eliminating all the other possible causes,” said Bhuva.

Cisco Systems, AMD, Qualcomm, Broadcom, and other high-tech companies, have funded studies regarding the effect of cosmic radiation particles on computing chips. There is concern about maintaining computing chips’ logic stability; especially as these chips become smaller using advanced nanotechnology processes.

Vanderbilt researchers are testing 16-nanometer chips by exposing them to a neutron beam and determining the number of SEUs encountered.

“Our study confirms that this [SEU] is a serious and growing problem,” said Bhuva, of the researcher’s testing results.

As the size of computing chipsets shrink, the smaller the electrical charge to create a “1” or a “0” logical bit for a logic gate; thus increasing the likelihood of an electrically-charged particle from cosmic rays causing SEU bit-flips.

Of course, the smaller these computing chips become, the smaller a target they will also become for being repeatedly struck by neutron radiation particles.

“Why not use some sort of protective layering on electronic computing chips?” you might be asking.

According to Vanderbilt, it would take 10 feet of concrete to stop the neutrons from getting at the computing chipsets.

Designing chip processors to operate “in triplicate” was one possible solution suggested.

NASA uses this method for maintaining the reliability of the computer systems aboard satellites and spacecraft in outer space.

They are also studying the use of self-reconfigurable digital circuits for automatically rerouting/bypassing damaged circuit components caused by high-energy cosmic particle impacts.

Power companies, medical equipment manufacturers, information technology, the communication, aviation, and transportation sectors know about this cosmic particle problem, and are addressing it, Bhuva confirmed.

“It is only the consumer electronics sector that has been lagging behind in addressing this problem,” he added.

So, the next time your smartphone or computer is acting strangely, you may want to place the blame on some very small cosmic particles originating from an unknown galaxy far, far away.

Follow my binary bits and bytes as they carefully flow through various digital logic gates via the Twitter pipeline at @bitsandbytes.

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