Roadrunner is a supercomputer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, shown in an NNSA photo.

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NNSA Supercomputers Do Double Duty

From simulating space junk to mapping the spread of pandemic influenza, the world-class supercomputers owned by the three laboratories of the National Nuclear Security Administration have helped to solve a surprising list of non-defense challenges.

The National Nuclear Security Administration unveiled a new website for its Advanced Simulation & Computing Program recently to mark Supercomputing Week 2011, with the highlights being the non-defense research its world-class supercomputers have facilitated. The machines at three NNSA national laboratories -- Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore -- have assisted in simulating space junk to help NASA protect spacecraft and have modeled the spread of pandemic influenza.

A team of computational physics and engineering experts used NNSA supercomputers in their work on space debris, which resulted in a set of tools known as the Testbed for Space Situational Awareness (TESSA) for simulating the position of objects in orbit and their detection by telescope and radar systems.

"NNSA's efforts to maintain the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nuclear stockpile without underground testing have yielded solutions to some of the most challenging issues that face our country," said Don Cook, the agency's deputy administrator for Defense Programs. "From space debris to medical work to climate change, even to understanding the damage that caused the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia, NNSA has been able to support many important issues that impact the nation while implementing President Obama's nuclear security agenda."

The agency reported that science-based applications ran on Roadrunner, a supercomputer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, before it was ready for use as part of the nuclear stockpile stewardship program. "One application modeled HIV proteins, which led to a better understanding of how the AIDS virus replicates itself. That project could serve as the cornerstone to developing the first viable vaccine to protect people from HIV," according to NNSA. Los Alamos also was the site where research was done to study potential pandemics, with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; this work was the source for a cover article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2006 titled "Mitigation strategies for pandemic influenza in the United States."

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories helped NASA determine why the space shuttle Columbia came apart in flight. It was supercomputer analyses and experimental studies that supported the theory that foam debris breaking off the external fuel tank during launch, striking the shuttle's wing, was the most probable cause of the wing damage that caused the breakup.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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