Have you ever experienced a computer crash for what seems like no apparent reason and wondered what caused it? You might just want to blame it on the real-life space invaders – cosmic rays!
What are cosmic rays?
Cosmic rays are high-energy particles that originate from outside of our solar system. They are made up of protons and other atomic nuclei, and they are constantly bombarding the Earth. They come from various sources such as supernovae, black holes, and even the sun. Cosmic rays can travel at almost the speed of light, and they can be incredibly energetic, with some cosmic rays detected with energies up to 10^20 electronvolts. They can pass through most materials, including the Earth’s atmosphere and solid rock, which makes them difficult to detect and study. When they are studied they are used to study the universe, detect nuclear weapons, and in medicine.
So how do they crash a computer?
Cosmic rays and neutrinos can cause a phenomenon known as Single Event Upsets (SEUs) in electronic devices, including computers. An SEU occurs when a high-energy particle collides with the atoms in a computer’s electronic components, causing a disruption in the flow of electrical current. This can lead to errors in the data stored in the computer’s memory, sometimes causing the computer to crash altogether!
They often cause a specific type of Single Event Upset (SEU) known as “bit flips” in computer memory such as RAM. A bit flip occurs when a high-energy particle collides with the atoms in a memory chip, causing a change in the state of a single bit of data. This can lead to errors in the data stored in the computer’s memory, potentially causing the computer to crash if the computer can’t recover the error it’s self.
On average, it is estimated that an SEU can occur in a computer’s RAM from as little as once or twice a day! Some factors that can effect this are altitude, location, and shielding of the computer/device.
It is worth noting that while the likelihood of an SEU caused by cosmic rays is low, they can still have a significant impact on electronic devices. This is particularly true for critical systems such as those used in aerospace, military, and nuclear industries, where the consequences of an SEU can be severe.
How do you prevent this space invader?
There are several ways to protect electronic devices, including computers, from the effects of cosmic rays:
Error-correcting code (ECC) memory: ECC memory is able to detect and correct errors caused by cosmic rays, which helps to keep the computer running smoothly.
Shielding: Placing the computer in a shielded room or using materials such as lead or tungsten to absorb the particles can effectively protect the electronic device from cosmic rays.
Redundant components: Having multiple components that can perform the same function can help to prevent computer crashes caused by cosmic rays, as the computer can continue to operate even if one component is damaged by a cosmic ray.
Location: Putting electronic devices in lower altitude areas, where the atmosphere is denser, would reduce the impact of cosmic rays on electronic devices.
Software solutions: Software solutions such as memory scrubbing, which periodically scans memory for errors and corrects them, can also help to prevent cosmic ray-induced errors.
It’s important to note that while these measures can help to protect electronic devices from the effects of cosmic rays, the likelihood of a computer crash solely caused by cosmic rays is still relatively low. Other factors, such as hardware or software issues, are also possible to be the cause of a computer crash.
Cosmic rays and neutrinos are fascinating particles with a lot of interesting properties and facts. Here is just a few::
They can travel at almost the speed of light. They are some of the fastest particles in the universe.
They can be incredibly energetic. Some cosmic rays have been detected with energies up to 10^20 electronvolts, which is around a billion times more energetic than the protons used in the Large Hadron Collider.
They can come from all over the universe. They can originate from our own sun, but also from distant galaxies.
They can pass through most materials with ease, including the Earth’s atmosphere and solid rock.
They can be used to study the universe. Scientists use cosmic rays to study the properties of the universe, including the properties of dark matter, the nature of black holes, and the origins of the universe.
They can be used to detect nuclear weapons. The high-energy particles generated by nuclear explosions can be detected by cosmic ray detectors, making them useful for detecting nuclear weapons.
They can be used in medicine. Cosmic rays can be used to generate medical isotopes, which are used in cancer treatment and imaging.