Resolving catastrophic error bursts from cosmic rays in large arrays of superconducting qubits
Scalable quantum computing can become a reality with error correction, provided that coherent qubits can be constructed in large arrays. The key premise is that physical errors can remain both small and sufficiently uncorrelated as devices scale, so that logical error rates can be exponentially suppressed. However, impacts from cosmic rays and latent radioactivity violate these assumptions. An impinging particle can ionize the substrate and induce a burst of quasiparticles that destroys qubit coherence throughout the device. High-energy radiation has been identified as a source of error in pilot superconducting quantum devices, but the effect on large-scale algorithms and error correction remains an open question. Elucidating the physics involved requires operating large numbers of qubits at the same rapid timescales necessary for error correction. Here, we use space- and time-resolved measurements of a large-scale quantum processor to identify bursts of quasiparticles produced by high-energy rays. We track the events from their initial localized impact as they spread, simultaneously and severely limiting the energy coherence of all qubits and causing chip-wide failure. Our results provide direct insights into the impact of these damaging error bursts and highlight the necessity of mitigation to enable quantum computing to scale.