Supercomputer checks potential Discovery risks

NASA supercomputer Columbia, named in memory of the crew lost in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, is on call and ready to work overtime to support astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.

Today, Columbia is assessing images of debris that affected the shuttle during its ascent. Researchers do not expect the incident will present a problem because it happened relatively late during the ascent.

“The Columbia supercomputer is playing a major role in assisting the Discovery mission in real time," said Eugene Tu, director of the Exploration Technology Directorate at the Moffett Field, Calif.-based NASA Ames Research Center, where Columbia is housed. "So far so good. We’re seeing a lot less activity for this part of the flight than we had for last year’s mission."

Forty percent of Columbia’s systems are on standby in case they are needed.

Damage assessment teams who are studying the results of yesterday’s onboard inspection will decide if any of the findings merit high-resolution simulations on Columbia. Data from launch camera images, radar and in-flight inspections will be entered into Columbia’s models, if necessary.

"There hasn’t been anything they flagged from those inspections or the radar data that showed a problem" as of this morning, Tu said.

In addition, any damage to the thermal protection tiles identified during the 12-day mission will be modeled to gauge potential risks during re-entry.

Last month, the Columbia system ranked fourth on the Top 500 list of the world’s fastest computers.

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