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Newcastle High School students to study cosmic rays beyond the atmosphere

The NASA TechRise logo is surrounded by geometric rocket and high altitude balloon designs.

A team of students from Newcastle High School is designing an experiment that will reach the edge of Earth's atmosphere in a suborbital rocket supplied by NASA.

The team of seven students is one of 57 teams nationwide chosen to take part in NASA's TechRise program. The program sends student-designed experiments into the upper atmosphere.

The Newcastle team is looking at cosmic radiation. Space is full of cosmic rays that can mess with computers by "flipping" ones to zeros, or zeros to ones when they hit a processor. This bit-flipping can corrupt data or result in the wrong command.

It's not usually a problem on earth because most cosmic rays are blocked by the atmosphere. But if humans want to do more spacefaring, they'll have to have a better understanding of this radiation and how it affects computers.

Enter Newcastle High School's "Project BitFlip." A team in Mr. Zach Beam's physics class is designing an experiment to measure some of those bit-flipping errors and identify the specific cosmic rays responsible.

"One of the goals is to see how the alpha particles, which is a form of radiation, will affect the correlation between which cosmic radiation is doing the bitflips and which ones are not doing it as much," said Matthew Drake, a Newcastle senior and member of the team.

The experiment will be loaded onto a suborbital rocket, alongside other experiments from students across the country. NASA plans to launch that rocket next year.

Each TechRise team is given an 8x4x4 box for its experiment. The students behind Project BitFlip will load their box with microprocessors, which will hopefully see their binary code corrupted by cosmic radiation when the rocket escapes the atmosphere. The specifics of that corruption can illustrate how cosmic rays affect computers.

Senior Tristan Troftgruben said there are real-world applications for what they're investigating.

"There's been reports of important computing errors that are thought to be as a result of a bitflip," Troftgruben said. "For example, there was one incident where a plane actually nosedived for 20 seconds and they're pretty sure it was due to a bitflip error. So it can be important."

Other TechRise projects will look at emissions, the impacts of climate change, and the effects of cosmic rays on everything from skin health to tomato seed germination.

In addition to Drake and Troftgruben, the Newcastle team includes seniors Gabriel Rose, Toby Johnson, Joshua Womack, Nickalena Schantle and junior Elizabeth Rushton.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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