Cosmic particles can change elections and cause planes to fall through the sky, scientists warn

Tiny invisible particles can cause bits of information held by computers to ‘flip’ with potentially serious ramifications

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent in Boston
Friday 17 February 2017 16:40 GMT
A time-lapse photo of the Middle Drum facility of the Telescope Array, a $25 million cosmic ray observatory that sprawls across the desert west of Delta, Utah.
A time-lapse photo of the Middle Drum facility of the Telescope Array, a $25 million cosmic ray observatory that sprawls across the desert west of Delta, Utah.

Travelling at the speed of light, vast hordes of invisible alien particles from outer space are changing the result of elections, sending planes plummeting from the sky and causing smartphones to freeze, scientists have warned.

Originating in cosmic rays from outside our solar system, the tiny particles constantly bombard the Earth, with millions hitting each human on the planet every second – without anyone noticing.

However, they are capable of interfering with computers in a potentially devastating way.

For they can, on rare occasions, cause a single bit of information to “flip”. This can be enough to force a computer to reboot, knock a passenger jet out of its autopilot mode and even change the result of a computerised election count by thousands of votes.

And Professor Bharat Bhuva, who has been investigating the problems caused by particles such as neutrons, muons and pions, warned the situation was “growing and serious”.

As he gave a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, the Vanderbilt University academic said: “This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public.

“The semiconductor manufacturers are very concerned about this problem because it is getting more serious as the size of the transistors in computer chips shrink and the power and capacity of our digital systems increase.

“In addition, microelectronic circuits are everywhere and our society is becoming increasingly dependent on them.”

The potential dangers were revealed after Mr Bhuva and his team looked into the effects of radiation on electronic circuits for the military and the space programme.

When a bit flips – which is known as a ‘single-event upset’ or SEU – it can be for a number of reasons and it is only possible to say it was caused by a subatomic particle if all the other possible explanations have been ruled out.

In 2003 in Schaerbeek, Belgium, an SEU was responsible for giving a candidate in an election an extra 4,096 votes.

This was only spotted because it meant the politician concerned had more votes than it was possible to get and an investigation ensued.

And a Qantus passenger jet flying from Singapore to Perth, Australia, plunged through the sky for a terrifying 23 seconds – injuring about a third of the passengers on board – after an SEU caused the plane to drop suddenly out of autopilot.

Perhaps a more typical problem potentially caused by an SEU is a computer or smartphone freezing, forcing it to be rebooted.

The more powerful the computer, the more common the problem.

A mobile phone with 500 kilobytes of memory might only have one error every 28 years, but a router farm, such as those used by Internet providers, with 25 gigabytes of memory could have one every 17 hours.

Flying at 35,000 feet, where radiation levels are much higher than at sea level, also increases the error rate dramatically.

Preventing the particles from hitting electronic devices is practically impossible, as it would require a shield of concrete more than three metres (10ft) thick.

So, instead, one solution is to design processors in triplicate and get them to ‘vote’ on any decision – the strategy adopted by Nasa to protect computers in space.

“The probability that SEUs will occur in two of the circuits at the same time is vanishingly small,” Mr Bhuva said.

“So if two circuits produce the same result it should be correct.”

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