Solar storms occasionally reach earth. The first solar storm to be documented was in 1859 -known as the Carrington Event. A solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth’s atmosphere. What ensued was one of the largest geomagnetic storms in recorded history. The Aurora, which are usually only visible in polar regions, were observed as close to the equator as Hawaii, Mexico, Cuba and Italy and recorded by British astronomers Richard C. Carrington and Richard Hodgson.
Even though technology was much less advanced in 1857, the storm still caused damage to electric equipment worldwide (i.e., mainly telegraph stations). Modern research indicates that solar storms of this magnitude occurring today would likely cause more widespread problems for a modern and technology-dependent society. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude – even though it passed Earth’s orbit without striking the planet, the solar storm of 2012 still resulted in damage. Even less intense solar storms, if pointed in the direction of earth, can have major consequences. Sun storm activity was the likely culprit for grid failures in 1989 that blacked out all of Quebec.
Even if a solar storm does not reach earth, high-energy neutrons still stream through our atmosphere. Even though not as intense as when solar storms approach each, this constant stream of neutrons can cause single-event upsets. Although these upsets do not result in as much damage as the more intense disasters caused by coronal mass ejection, they can crash computer applications, such as those vital to operating aircraft. Indeed, the rates of these single-event upsets drastically increase as you go higher into the atmosphere. For example, at just 30,000 feet, the intensity and rate of these errors increase 300 fold compared to ground-level. Most planes fly at around 40,000 feet, and long flights are typically assigned even higher altitudes.
Fortunately, coronal mass ejection, especially those that can reach earth, are incredibly rare. Accordingly, single-event upsets used to be pretty rare events; however, semiconductor technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past couple of years. As engineers have been able to reduce the size of cells, chip designers have been able to raise the number of cells per chip. While this makes the chips more efficient, allowing for higher processing power, it also puts the chip at much greater risk for a single-event upset. Modern technology may be getting faster, but its also more likely to crash due to normal everyday radiation from the sun.
Unfortunately, there is no practical way to shield electronics from these particles. To help prevent single-event upsets, chip designers can add mitigation (e.g., error correction codes). However, not only do few engineers have this skill set, but it is very costly and time consuming to do so, which ultimately results in increased prices. Lucid Circuit’s RSAP technology offers a more efficient solution to test technology for susceptibility to single-event upsets. Read more about RSAP on our website.