Single Event Upsets: High Energy Particles From Outer Space Flipping Bits

Our world is constantly bombarded by high-energy particles from various sources, and if they hit in just the right spot on the sensitive electronics our modern world is built on, they can start flipping bits. Known as Single Event Upsets (SEU), their effect can range from unnoticeable to catastrophic, and [Veritasium] explores this phenomenon in the video after the break.

The existence of radiation has been known since the late 1800s, but the effect of low-level radiation on electronics was only recognized in the 1970s when trace amounts of radioactive material in the ceramic packaging of Intel DRAM chips started causing errors. The most energetic particles come from outer space and are known as cosmic rays. They originate from supernovas and black holes, and on earth they have been linked to an impossibly fast Super Mario 64 speedrun and a counting error in a Belgian election. It’s also possible to see their path using a cloud chamber you can build yourself. There are even research projects that use the camera sensors of smartphones as distributed cosmic ray detectors.

Earth’s magnetic field acts as a protective barrier against the majority of these cosmic rays, and there is a measurable increase in radiation as you gain altitude and enter space. In space, serious steps need to be taken to protect spacecraft, and it’s for this reason that the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars this year uses a 20-year-old main computer, the PowerPC RAD750. It has a proven track record of radiation resistance and has been used on more than a dozen spacecraft. Astronauts experience cosmic radiation in the form of flashes of light when they close their eyes and protecting their DNA from damaging effects is a serious concern for NASA.

It’s impossible to know the true impact of cosmic radiation on our world and even our history. Who knows, one of those impossible-to-replicate software bugs or the inspiration for your latest project might have originated in another galaxy. Continue reading “Single Event Upsets: High Energy Particles From Outer Space Flipping Bits”

Space Is Radioactive: Dealing With Cosmic Rays

Outer space is not exactly a friendly environment, which is why we go through great lengths before we boost people up there. Once you get a few hundred kilometers away from our beloved rocky planet things get uncomfortable due to the lack of oxygen, extreme cold, and high doses of radiation.

Especially the latter poses a great challenge for long-term space travel, and so people are working on various concepts to protect astronauts’ DNA from being smashed by cosmic rays. This has become ever more salient as NASA contemplates future manned missions to the Moon and Mars. So let’s learn more about the dangers posed by galactic cosmic rays and solar flares. Continue reading “Space Is Radioactive: Dealing With Cosmic Rays”