Supercomputer clears view of space

Satellite, spare part or UFO?

Distinguishing objects in space became

easier last month, following the announcement that the Air Force's space

surveillance team is using a new IBM Corp. supercomputer to identify the

more than 9,000 objects in Earth's orbit.

The Air Force team, based at the Maui High Performance Computing Center

in Hawaii, is using a supercomputer upgrade to speed the digital enhancement

of anything located, tracked or imaged using ground-based telescopes, said

Capt. Brian Beveridge, program manager for MHPCC and project officer for

the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The IBM SP supercomputer is capable of 480 billion calculations per

second and can rapidly turn fuzzy, unreadable telescopic images into sharply

focused motion pictures. This enables Defense Department officials to determine

whether the object is a spacecraft or some spare part left behind during

a NASA flight.

"It's the same software and algorithms as before, but it allows us to

do more images in the same amount of time," Beveridge said. "It's like

upgrading your desktop from a 200 MHz to a 700 MHz machine.... You can process

data faster."

The supercomputer may also be used during flights of the space shuttle,

which will enable NASA controllers to identify damage that might have occurred

during liftoff or in flight.

The Air Force and DOD are using the supercomputing processors for other

missions besides space image rendering, but those are classified, said Gene

Bal, director of MHPCC.

Bal said that the facility has been using IBM SP technology since 1993,

and the latest supercomputer was part of a $10 million option. This recent

upgrade was valued at about $4.5 million.

The latest IBM SP has 80 nodes with four processors each and uses complex

algorithms to significantly improve telescopic images in about five seconds,

as opposed to 10 seconds in the past, said Dave Turek, vice president of

IBM's deep computing unit. The parallel programming setup enables extremely

fast communication between the nodes and offers the ability to solve complex


Initial benchmarks with the new supercomputer show that the processing

time has been cut in half for many applications, said Steve Karwoski, associate

director of operations at MHPCC. "For most applications, we're getting approximately

a doubling of performance."


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