While harmless to living organisms, a small part of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of the microelectronic circuitry in our electronic devices and can alter individual bits of data stored in a memory.
This is called a single event upset or SEU and the outcome of this event could be various, from freezing your smartphone's UI to bringing down a passenger jet plane.
"This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," said Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Bhuva is a member of Vanderbilt’s Radiation Effects Research Group, established in 1987 to study the effects of radiation on electronic systems.
Serious incidents happened due to SEUs
As pointed out by Bhuva, there have been a number of incidents that illustrate how serious this problem can be. For example, in 2003 a bit flip in an electronic voting machine in Belgium, added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The error was only detected because it gave the candidate more votes than were possible.
In 2008, the avionics system of a Qantus passenger jet flying from Singapore to Perth suffered from a SEU that caused the autopilot to disengage. As a result, the aircraft dove 690 feet in only 23 seconds, injuring the passengers seriously enough to divert the aircraft to the nearest airstrip.
There have been also a number of unexplained glitches in airline computers, some of which experts feel must have been caused by SEUs. In addition to that SEUs can also disturb the performance of consumer electronics like computers, smartphones etc.
So, what's the solution?
Since it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike, the malfunctions they cause are very difficult to characterise. As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward.
"When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes. It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes," professor Bhuva explained.
However, there are ways to design computer chips to dramatically reduce their vulnerability. For example, manufactures can design the processors in triplicate formation, as the probability of a SEUs will occur in two of the circuits at the same time is vanishingly small.
So if two circuits produce the same result it should be correct. That's the same trick NASA use in it's spacecraft computer systems to maximise it's reliability in space. The good news is that the semiconductor manufacturers are all very concerned about this problem and taking steps to solve it.