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Space Weather: Why You Should Care About Cosmic Rays


Geomagnetic storms expected. No significant solar wind forecast. Solar radiation below S-scale storm level thresholds. No radiation storm forecast. October 14th-16th 2021

These are clips from the space weather forecast report from the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center. Though they might sound strange and unimportant, it’s time for a paradigm shift.

The radiation from our Sun and other galactic regions of space can cause a phenomena called “single-event upsets”. This is a change of state caused by a single ionizing particle (ions, electrons, alpha particles...) striking a transistor node in a microchip, causing a piece of binary data to flip (from a 0 to 1 or 1 to 0).

These "bit-flips" were responsible for an election miscount Schaerbeek, Belgium (2003) by exactly 4096 votes; a Qantas airplane falling out of the sky (2008); and a one-in-a-trillion glitch for a Super Mario 64 speedrunner (2013). These three completely unrelated and significant (well, the speedrun is debatable) events were caused by the same, unpredictable phenomena —and the universe is to blame for it.

Interested in space weather yet?

Our nearest source of cosmic radiation is the Sun. Solar winds constantly send into space a stream of charged particles; their intensity fluctuates according to an approximate 11-year solar cycle. During a solar storm, serious damages can occur on Earth. For example, satellite electronic boards can be severely damaged when bombarded with charged particles going through them—sometimes requiring them to be turned off for protection against these events. You can imagine the dire consequences on the ground as communications are interrupted and navigation systems stop functioning. To protect expensive satellites, reliable space weather forecasts are desirable and necessary.

Besides solar radiation, space weather is also affected by non-solar sources such as “galactic cosmic rays”. These come from distant galaxies and supernovae that have been travelling for millions of years at the speed of light, to finally strike the Earth from all directions. Cosmic rays were first discovered in 1912 by Victor Francis Hess, when he observed that an electroscope discharged more rapidly as he ascended in a balloon. In 1936, Hess was awarded the Nobel prize in Physics for his discovery.

Though the Earth's magnetic field offers some protection from space weather phenomena, under the right circumstances cosmic rays can be transferred into our terrestrial system. A single cosmic interaction can interfere with electronic devices, disrupt their operation, corrupt their memory, or even fry a chip. Space weather events can have devastating impacts on technologies around the globe, from aircraft operations, internet banking, to Amazon’s logistics.

Fortunately, we have devised protection mechanisms to reduce the high-impact consequences of disruptive space weather through Error Correction Code memory (ECC) and physical casings for important chips (e.g. on airplanes fly-by-wire controls, which are more susceptible to single-upset events due to their high altitude). But as digital transformations increasingly dictate the norms of human societies, making us ever more dependent on electronics, cosmic ray induced bit-flips will become more and more prominent. Maybe you'll get to see one for yourself.

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