MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — NASA said Friday it will make one of the world's most powerful supercomputers available to a national network of researchers in aerospace and other fields.
The supercomputer, capable of 250 million computations per second, will be essential to the design and development of the space agency's so-called aerospace plane, a high-speed, reusable spacecraft planned for the mid-1990s and beyond, officials said.
"The project cannot be accomplished without the use of large-scale computers," said Victor L. Peterson, aerophysics director at the agency's Ames Research Center here.
There are two other Cray-2 supercomputers of equal speed and memory size installed, Peterson said in an interview. He said one is at the University of Minnesota and one is doing classified work at an undisclosed location. They are made by Cray Research Inc. of Minneapolis.
Peterson said about 30% of the NASA supercomputer's workload will involve the aerospace plane project.
More than 50 of the 97 projects that will be using the $30-million supercomputer system involve aerodynamics and about 15 involve hypersonics, which have direct applications to the aerospace plane, said Lynda Haines, user services manager. Other areas, such as structural mechanics and turbulence, also will be applied to designs for the plane.
She said the supercomputer can process data so quickly that the only way for humans to keep up is through graphic images.
"Its internal memory is what's phenomenal about it," Haines said. "It can hold 256 million words. When we got our Cray, it had more memory than every Cray ever built before put together."
Ames received its Cray-2 on Sept. 30. It has been working out the bugs since then and will open it for national use today, Peterson said. In tests the computer has performed as many as 1.6 billion calculations per second, he said.
"All of the projects we accept for the Cray-2 require vast amounts of data," Haines said. "To do a three-dimensional aerodynamics design, for example, you need lots and lots of memory because you're dealing with a lot of points to match up in a three-dimensional area."
The computer system will be available to more than 150 scientists around the nation through high-speed satellite links and sophisticated computer graphics work stations, Haines said. Plans call for that number to double when the network becomes fully operational in March.
Access to the supercomputer has been given to a wide range of National Aeronautics and Space Administration facilities, universities and private industry around the nation. They include the University of Arizona, Pennsylvania State University, Iowa State University, General Dynamics Corp. in Texas, Grumman Aerospace Corp. in New York, Boeing Commercial Airplane Co. in Seattle and Rockwell International in Los Angeles.
Peterson, who has worked on the supercomputer project since its inception 11 years ago, said the aerospace plane wasn't the focus at the outset, but the system is perfect for the work required for the project by NASA and the Defense Department.
The plane, designed to take off from a conventional runway, achieve orbit and return to Earth, would have a top speed of about 17,000 m.p.h., he said.
Besides the aerospace plane, the supercomputer will be used in projects ranging from exploring weather patterns to oceanography to computational chemistry.
U.S. manufacturers already are working on machines that could be four to six times more powerful than the Cray-2. The goal at Ames is to have computers capable of 10 billion computations per second within a decade.
Haines said Ames officials want to keep two supercomputers operational at all times.
"By the time we get our third one (scheduled for 1989), our first one, the Cray-2, will be obsolete," she said.