Computer crashed? You could blame forces beyond our solar system

The culprit could be cosmic rays

When your computer crashes or phone freezes, don't be so quick to blame the manufacturer. Cosmic rays may be your real foe, or rather the electrically charged particles they generate.

While harmless to living organisms, a small number of these particles have enough energy to interfere with the operation of the microelectronic circuitry in our personal devices. It's called a single-event upset or SEU.

During an SEU, particles alter an individual bit of data stored in a chip's memory. Consequences can be as trivial as altering a single pixel in a photograph or as serious as bringing down a passenger jet.

An SEU was also blamed for an electronic voting error in Schaerbeekm, Belgium, back in 2003. A bit flip in the electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The issue was only noticed because the machine gave the candidate more votes than were possible.

"This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," said Bharat Bhuva. Bhuva is a member of Vanderbilt University's Radiation Effects Research Group, which was established in 1987 to study the effects of radiation on electronic systems. The group initially focused on military and space applications, but since 2001, has expanded to studying radiation's effect on consumer electronics.

Bhuva, a professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt, gave a presentation on SEUs Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Despite some serious examples, SEUs are still fairly rare events. But as the number of transistors being used in new electronic systems increases, so does the probability of an SEU failure on the device level.

Semiconductor manufactures seem to have caught on to the trend and are working to diminish the interference of cosmic rays. For instance, back in 2008, Fujitsu engineers climbed a Hawaiian volcano to better understand how comic rays cause computer errors.

One way to decrease the probability of SEUs is to design the processors in pairs of threes and have them vote. It's an approach that NASA is already using its spacecraft computer systems.

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Magdalena Petrova

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