Alien space particles carry energy that interfere with microelectronic circuit function, wrecking havoc on smartphones, and even causing planes to drop out from the sky, scientists say. There is a growing problem of this sort of electronic disruption, they say. Glitches in airplane systems which previously had no explanation may be down to these subatomic particle attacks.
When cosmic rays travelling at fractions of the speed of light hit the Earth's atmosphere, cascades of secondary particles, including energetic neutrons, are created. Millions of these particles strike your body each second, but there has been no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, when it strikes microelectronic circuits, the effects could be devastating.
When alien space particles interact with integrated circuits, they may change individual bits of data in the memory known as a single-event upset or SEU. When your smartphone freezes, or your computer crashes, most likely you blame the manufacturer. According to researchers, in many cases, these operational failures may be caused by the impact of electrically charged particles carried by cosmic rays, the Business Standard reports.
"This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University in the US, Bharat Bhuva says. A number of incidents have been reported that illustrate how serious the problem can be, Bhuva adds. He cites the bit flip in a voting machine in Belgium in 2003, which added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate.
Another more serious example is what happened to the avionics system of a Qantus passenger jet in 2008, which flew from Singapore to Perth. The plane appeared to suffer from SEU that caused the autopilot to disengage. The glitch resulted in the aircraft diving 690 feet in only 23 seconds, causing serious injuries to about a third of the passengers, the Daily Star reports.
Additionally, a number of unexplained glitches in airline computers have been reported which experts say could have been caused by SEUs. The cosmic ray attacks have resulted in cancellation of hundreds of flights resulting in significant economic losses. As more researchers are looking at SEU, problems caused by alien space particles are definitely something to watch out for.