NASA to study Toyota recall cars. Are cosmic rays the culprit?

Sudden acceleration of Toyota recall cars will be the focus of the NASA investigation, probably not cosmic rays.

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    This NASA image shows space shuttle Discovery as it sits on Launch Pad 39A in preparation for mission STS-131, at the Kennedy Space Center, March 28. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called in NASA scientists to try to determine a cause for the unintended acceleration problem reported in some Toyota vehicles recently.
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[Editor's note: This story was updated March 31, 2010, with new information from NASA.]

Maybe it will take rocket scientists to figure out why some Toyota cars suddenly accelerate.

A team of NASA engineers will soon begin examining Toyota vehicles to see what could be causing the problem, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Monday.

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And one of the areas of inquiry will be cosmic rays, as was the subject of a recent Free Press article and a series of jokes by comedian Jay Leno on The Tonight Show (see the start of the below video for the clip).

Now, looking to space to explain sudden acceleration here on Earth is a headline-grabber, but the focus of NASA's study probably will be far more mundane.

Initially, nine engineers of NASA with expertise in electrical engineering, electromagentic compatibility, software integrity, statistics, and "single event upsets" (cosmic rays and other possible unpredictable occurrences) will join at least eight employees of the Transportation Department's auto safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They'll examine Toyota vehicles, including, presumably, the Lexus that NHTSA bought from Rhonda Smith, who testified before a House panel last month, about her harrowing sudden-acceleration experience in 2006.

In a similar uproar over sudden-acceleration problems in Audis during the 1980s, investigators chalked up the events to human error. But Secretary LaHood has vowed to investigate everything. In addition to the NASA-NHTSA investigation, which is due to conclude in six months, he has asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a much longer and broader investigation into unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls in cars generally.

Could cosmic rays or some other space-based interference cause cars to accelerate suddenly? Currently, there's no known electronic theory that establishes a clear link between the acceleration events and electromagnetic interference of any kind, from space or Earth, according to NHTSA.

Instead, the NASA Engineering and Safety Center was picked for its extensive expertise in electronic controls, forensic analysis, and fail-safe design, NHTSA says. The center, created in 2004 after the Columbia shuttle disaster, has issued more than 100 detailed technical assessments, mostly on space-related matters like the shuttle, planetary missions, and the Hubble telescope. This is apparently its first automotive investigation.

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