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Many modern supercomputers, like those shown here, are actually numerous computers that are linked together to make them far more powerful.
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Courtesy of UCAR Digital Image Library

What is a Supercomputer?

Some scientific problems and processes are so complex that you need SUPERCOMPUTING power to tackle them! Just what is a supercomputer?

A supercomputer is a computer that is among the largest, fastest or most powerful of the computers available. As of this writing (late 2007) the fastest supercomputers operate on the order of more than 200 teraflops (that's computer lingo for trillions of operations per second!). And supercomputers are being improved all the time! Soon they will operate on the petaflop-scale (that's one quadrillion operations per second!).

Supercomputers are used to tackle problems that are very complex or problems that would be messy to deal with in the real physical world because they are dangerous, deal with incredibly small things are incredibly big ones! Here's some examples:

  • Climate researchers model Earth's current and predicted future climate using supercomputers.
  • Astronomers and space scientists use supercomputers to study the Sun and space weather.
  • Scientists use supercomputers to simulate how a tsunami would impact a coastline or a given city.
  • Supercomputers are used to simulate supernova explosions in space.
  • Supercomputers are used to test the aerodynamics of the latest military planes.
  • Supercomputers are being used to model how proteins fold and how that folding might affect people that have Alzheimer's Disease, Cystic Fibrosis and many kinds of cancer.
  • Supercomputers are used to model nuclear explosions, limiting the need for real nuclear testing.
Last modified January 19, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF