What happen when cosmic rays incident on electronics

05 Sep 2021

What is cosmic rays

Cosmic rays are high-energy protons and atomic nuclei that move through space at nearly the speed of light. They originate from the sun, from outside of the solar system in our own galaxy,[1] and from distant galaxies.[2] Upon impact with Earth's atmosphere, cosmic rays produce showers of secondary particles, some of which reach the surface; although the bulk is intercepted by the magnetosphere or the heliosphere.


Crash without any bugs? is it possible?

There's one key thing you need to know about cosmic rays and how they affect technology: cosmic rays have the power to "bit flip."

That's to say cosmic radiation can flip a "1" in a computer program's binary code to "0," or vice versa. That might not seem like much, but computers rely entirely on an accurate set of binary instructions, which are comprised of millions of ones and zeroes. To a computer "1" is an entirely different instruction than "0." A bit flip can cause computers and electronics to do things they're not meant to do.


The only plausible explanation

Take the corruption of an election in Belgium in 2003, for example.

In the district of Schaerbeek in Brussels, Belgium, one specific polling station during the 2003 election registered over 4,000 votes in favor of the Communist Party. The problem was that those 4,000 extra votes didn't match up with the total population number of the town of Schaerbeek. The Communist Party received "more votes than there were voters" at that polling station, Radiolab's Simon Adler said in the podcast.

Clearly, this posed a problem: a nation's political identity was at stake.

Through some clever mathematics and investigation - and after ruling out software or hardware bugs, or even voting fraud - it was eventually discovered that a bit flip caused by cosmic rays was among the only plausible explanations for the malfunctioning voting system.

It happened again in 2009. That year, Toyota issued a recall on more than 9 million vehicles worldwide due to sudden and unintended acceleration, and people couldn't use their brakes because the controls were all computerized (Toyota was ahead of the game at the time when it came to vehicle technology).

It was a pretty dramatic - and tragic - episode. People were killed. Someone was even released from prison because they were wrongfully charged with running people over due to a Toyota that accelerated uncontrollably, according to Radiolab's podcast.

When experts dug into the problems with Toyota's cars at the time, it was found that many of the issues were caused by - you guessed it - a bit flip.

It's even speculated that the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery fiasco could have been caused by cosmic rays, Bharat Bhuva, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, told Business Insider. Bhuva has dedicated a large chunk of his work to studying the effects of cosmic rays.

However, the evidence so far that cosmic rays were behind Samsung's fiasco isn't as strong as it is for the Belgium election or the Toyota recall, Bhuva said. Plus, Samsung's official findings suggest that the exploding batteries were caused by erroneous battery design and defects.