Air Force to hunt space junk with supercomputer

The U.S. Air Force will use a new IBM supercomputer to try to track down space junk orbiting the Earth, service officials announced last week.

Researchers at the Air Force's Maui Space Surveillance Complex will use the supercomputer to process telescopic images of the more than 9,000 objects circling the planet. While the Air Force has employed supercomputers to help identify objects in orbit before, the new supercomputer allows images to be processed within three to five seconds.

"The upgrade cuts image processing time in half," said Capt. Brian Beveridge, program manager at the Maui center, where the IBM SP supercomputer is located.

The Air Force surveys objects in Earth's orbit for a variety of clients. Commercial customers often need to verify the position of a satellite, or to identify the location of space debris so they can avoid it when planning missions. In 1999, NASA enlisted an Air Force supercomputer to process images of the tail section of the space shuttle Discovery, which was damaged during liftoff.

The new supercomputer will be used to remove "noise" from the background of images taken by telescopes at the Maui complex. These telescopes are trained on an object as it orbits the Earth, and not on an open section of sky. For this reason, it is unlikely that Air Force telescopes would capture phenomena besides the object being tracked--such as an asteroid--in an image. Objects approaching the Earth are tracked by NASA.

The new supercomputer uses the same SP technology that has powered other IBM supercomputers such as Deep Blue, which defeated Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a 1997 chess match. SP technology pools the processing power of individual computers equipped with IBM's copper microprocessors, creating a supercomputer that is capable of hundreds of billions of calculations per second.

"SP technology operates according to the philosophy of parallel programming, in which the steps of an operation are performed simultaneously, reducing the time for the overall operation," said Dave Turek, who heads IBM's Deep Computing efforts. The new Maui supercomputer is the 57th most powerful computer in the world, according to Turek.

Besides tracking objects in orbit, the supercomputer will support other Defense Department of Defense research projects. The Maui High Performance Computing Center, which will process data from the supercomputer, "is well positioned to take a leadership role in providing high performance computing technology to Hawaii-based DoD organizations, as well as to the DoD community at large," said Gene Bal, director of the center.

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