Image: Project Columbia
SGI
A fish-eye view shows the 10,240-processor array behind Project Columbia, NASA's ambitious supercomputer project in Mountain View, Calif.
updated 11/10/2004 12:29:02 PM ET 2004-11-10T17:29:02

They help predict the path of weather halfway around the world or in space, shed light on the death of dinosaurs and train pilots to fly in Alaska. They’re supercomputers, capable of high-speed calculations that would take people trillions of years to do.

This week, more than 100 research groups ranging from universities to federal agencies set up shop at an annual conference in Pittsburgh to show off what they’ve been doing with supercomputers. The conference began Saturday and ends Friday.

At one of the larger booths, NASA researchers displayed results of computer simulations on supercomputers — such as the recently finished 10,240-processor Project Columbia — on how the body behaves in space, troubleshooting the space shuttle, as well as investigating the inner workings of supernovas and the birth of the universe.

On nine flat-screen panels, NASA showed pasta-shaped carbon nanotubes rippling and bulging, part of senior scientist Deepak Srivastava’s work to develop new materials to shield spacecraft from the radiation of space and the heat of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Srivastava credits supercomputers with giving researchers “a lot of low-hanging fruit.”

“I can’t say that nothing would be possible because progress will still take place with experiments, but that progress will happen in a kind of pedestrian way,” Srivastava said. “It is kind of accelerating the process and giving you a platform that you can search for it in. You don’t have to waste time, you don’t have to waste money.”

At the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center at the University of Alaska, researchers are studying tsunamis, sea ice and the effects of “space weather” on the Aurora Borealis.

The center’s supercomputers also have a 200-square-mile (518-square-kilometer) virtual section of Alaska — accurate down to about 8 feet (2.5 meters) — used as a flight trainer to familiarize pilots, both civilian and military, with the state.

And then there’s a 3-D interactive model of a Japanese house, adapted from a textbook, used to teach students about Japanese culture, including bathing and how to use appliances.

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