What effect do solar flares have on computer chips?

Not much, unless you are in space. We are pretty well shielded on the surface of the earth from such effects. But in space, satellites develop large surface charges equal to several thousand volts, and solar storms send large bursts of charged particles into the earth's space environment. Computer and electronic circuitry has to be carefully designed and shielded from these harmful effects, and there is much data...mostly classified...that describes in detail what the actual effects from solar storms are. I cannot be more specific than that, because although I would like to get my hands on this data for educational purposes, it is very hard to find this information because either the Defense Department has it classified, or civilian industrial companies have it internally classified as part of their competitive edge in developing better commercial satellites. Also, satellites are insured, but being knocked out by solar storms would be classified as a loss due to un- insurable Natural Causes. This means that when satellites fail on-orbit, private communications companies tend NOT to want it known that a solar storm event was the cause. They would rather the insurance companies be convinced that the satellite failed for other, coverable, reasons. If the data on circuitry and solar storms were widely available and unclassified, satellite companies would not be able to win their insurance claims to recover part of the costs of their failed satellites.

Return to the Ask the Space Scientist main page.

All answers are provided by Dr. Sten Odenwald (Raytheon STX) for the
NASA IMAGE/POETRY Education and Public Outreach program.