Pretty much everyone knows what the blue screen of death is. That dreaded complete system failure that happens every so often. Sometimes for no reason at all. It can happen on any device – PC, Mac, Android, iOS/iPhone… most of the time the device just reboots.
Any number of issues can cause them – software bug, hardware driver issue, poorly manufactured hardware, an operating system (OS) error, malware (like viruses, adware, etc.). However, those times when it just seems to happen out of the blue (pun intended) might be because of space. Yes, that big blue-in-the day, black-in-the-night thing above you.
Phys.org reports on research from Vanderbilt’s Radiation Effects Research Group showing that high-energy particles (cosmic rays typically from solar flares from our sun or a distant pulsar or black hole) that are constantly raining down on us (don’t worry, it is not believed to hurt living things) will, every once in awhile, interact with electronics and can cause bits to flip. Computers are typically pretty resilient and, through hardware and software error correction, are able to handle bit flips happening every so often. However, when that one critical bit gets flipped or a higher number than the computer can compensate for get flipped — it wreaks havoc (not the game engine).
The researchers noted that as electronic pathways and transistors get smaller and smaller they are becoming more and more susceptible to these high energy particles. The 16 nanometer (nm) FinFET transistors that are in most of today’s central processing units (CPUs or processors) are at greater risk than the 20 and 28 nm transistors in CPUs from years ago. The switch from a 2-dimensional (2D) architecture to a 3-dimensional (3D) architecture has helped mitigate some of the issues but the decrease in pathway size and increase in the total number of transistors packed into the same space is eliminating the advantage stacking has given.
What can be done?
One fix is to pour 10 feet of concrete around your computer and mobile devices… No? NASA’s solution to electronics in space is to embed 3 separate processors, each one performing the same functions. If 2 of the 3 processors come up with the same answer then it is highly likely to be the correct answer since the chances are astronomically small (get it?) that high-energy particles will disrupt the same calculation in more than one processor. As CPUs gain more and more cores it might become a requirement that half of those cores be used to double-down on calculations in order to ensure they are not the result of an electronic cosmic ray strike.