By AP Technology Writer
updated 10/27/2004 12:54:51 PM ET 2004-10-27T16:54:51

The builders of a new NASA supercomputer claim the 10,240-processor machine is the fastest in the world — an exciting prospect for researchers even if the speed title has yet to be officially bestowed.

Project Columbia, named for the space shuttle that was destroyed in early 2003, was built in less than 120 days at NASA's Ames Research Center with components manufactured at the Silicon Graphics Inc. plant in Chippewa Falls, Wis. The cluster of 20 computers working as one will be used to speed up spacecraft design, environmental prediction and other research.

At the $50 million machine's public unveiling Tuesday, the science shared the stage with claims of record-setting performance from system-builder Silicon Graphics, processor-provider Intel Corp. and NASA.

It's been a sore issue for the U.S. technology industry since June 2002, when a system built outside the United States topped a list of supercomputers compiled by an independent group that verifies performance claims. Japan's Earth Simulator has led the race ever since.

That could change next month, when the Top500 Project releases its twice-yearly rankings at a supercomputer conference in Pittsburgh.

Using just 16 of Project Columbia's 20 installed systems, the computer achieved a sustained performance of 42.7 trillion calculations per second, or teraflops.

"If you could do one calculation per second by hand, it would take you a million years to do what this machine does in a single second," said G. Scott Hubbard, Ames' director.

By comparison, Earth Simulator's sustained performance is 35.86 teraflops.

The competition for the top spot will be fierce. Last month, IBM announced the results of its Blue Gene supercomputer, which claimed its sustained performance was 36.01 teraflops. Because the machine is not yet finished, it could still come up on top.

An IBM spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

There may also be some improvement for Project Columbia. Its numbers were achieved using only four-fifths of its processors. Officials declined to comment on what the sustained performance might be when all 10,240 Itanium 2 processors are deployed.

But NASA officials, while touting Project Columbia's performance, said the system _ even if it's not officially the fastest _ will have a major impact on scientific and engineering research around the nation. Such work has already started, they added.

On Tuesday, an experiment was being run to determine if the extra computing horsepower could be harnessed quickly to respond to a simulated space shuttle problem.

Previously, it took as long as three months to run the calculations, Hubbard said.

The new supercomputer also is being used to process global climate data from satellites to improve hurricane landfall forecasts. It also will help design space vehicles, model the behavior of interplanetary radiation and the help find life beyond Earth.

"We're going to have an impact that will be nationwide, if not worldwide, on weather, engineering design, on astronomy, on earth science, and we're going to see enormous, incredible results," Hubbard said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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