IBM supercomputer to analyze objects in Earth's orbit

IBM wins a bid for a 320-processor supercomputer that will help the Air Force keep track of satellites, discarded rocket parts, and other miscellany orbiting the Earth.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors | Semiconductors | Web browsers | Quantum computing | Supercomputers | AI | 3D printing | Drones | Computer science | Physics | Programming | Materials science | USB | UWB | Android | Digital photography | Science Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Right now, when Air Force telescopes spot an unknown object orbiting in the same territory as U.S. satellites, the military must wait for the object to loop around the Earth again before taking a closer look. That will change with a new IBM supercomputer being installed in Hawaii.

IBM has won a bid for a 320-processor supercomputer that will help the Air Force keep track of satellites, discarded rocket parts, space-suit gloves and other miscellany orbiting the Earth.

The machine will run at the Maui High-Performance Computing Center, using its processing horsepower to refine otherwise blurry images of the 9,000 orbiting items spotted by Air Force radar and telescopes, Gene Bal, director of the center, said in an interview.

The new computer will speed up the image processing so that Air Force telescopes can be set up to carefully examine objects before their orbit carries them below the horizon, he said. In addition, the new system, which cost an estimated $4 million to $5 million of a broader $10 million contract, will let the Air Force scrutinize more objects at once.

"We apply numerical, mathematical, algorithmic techniques to take an almost useless image of an object in space and convert that to a very good image they can use for identification," Bal said.

Space junk is a major problem for those who consider launching space stations, satellites or space shuttles into orbit. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said a ground crew lost contact with a British satellite called Cerise after an old fragment of an exploded rocket knocked off part of Cerise's stabilization system. And an orbiting space shuttle docked with the Hubble Space Telescope was forced to hastily dodge another piece of rocket.

A 1995 NASA study found that only 5 percent of orbiting objects were functioning spacecraft, much less than the 40 percent that are other manmade items such as dead spacecraft or hunks of discarded rocket engines. Keeping track of these objects is tough, particularly when they break into fragments, as two Russian Proton rocket parts did in the spring of 1999, one crumbling into 17 parts and another into 76.

The IBM machine will be used for more than just peering at space junk and newly launched spacecraft the United States wants to study. It also will help the U.S. Navy conduct simulated battles in the Pacific Ocean, Bal said.

The IBM machine has 224GB of memory and nearly 3 terabytes of disk space, IBM said. The 320 processors are organized into 80 four-processor computers joined by a high-speed interconnect.

IBM defeated Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and SGI in the bid, Bal said. Sun Microsystems, which has been angling for more supercomputer sales, didn't bid, Bal said.

IBM is aggressively pursuing supercomputing customers with its Unix servers, now known as the pSeries product line. Earlier this month, Big Blue rose to the top of the list of the 500 fastest supercomputers with its ASCI White machine at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Traditionally, supercomputer buyers have been academic institutions and the government, but IBM is interested because an increasing number of businesses also are buying the high-powered machines for tasks such as poring over business data or simulating new car designs before building expensive prototypes.

The new IBM computer at Maui will replace an aging IBM system with about 192 processors, Bal said. Joining the new one in coming months as part of the $10 million contract will be another pSeries machine and a Beowulf computer made of 256 two-processor IBM Intel servers, Bal said.

However, the new machine isn't IBM's highest-end supercomputer. The Maui machine uses Power3-II chips, whereas the new Nighthawk 2 computer uses faster Power3-III chips.