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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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Our online store includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, ranging from seismology, rocks and minerals, oceanography, and Earth system science to astronomy!

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA