One of the fastest and most powerful supercomputers in Maryland now belongs to Morgan State University, thanks to a NASA program to establish a supercomputing network among black universities.
The 2-year-old, $2.5 million ETA-10 supercomputer was donated to Morgan on May 10 by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, and it is to be installed at the university's new engineering center for operation beginning this fall.
"It's more than a leap forward for us; it's a catapult," said George Peterson, assistant vice president for academic affairs, expressing school officials' elation about the acquisition. "We haven't talked about it much yet, because we were afraid it would disappear."
The university plans to make the supercomputer -- capable of performing 300 million operations per second -- the foundation of a new Center for Applied Space Science and Engineering to greatly expand Morgan's research and teaching programs.
And the ETA-10 will serve participating "historically black universities and colleges" as a supercomputing resource to be used for scientific research, training students and providing access to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration data bank through Goddard.
"We're trying to get past the situation where everyone has to come to Goddard to use our data," said Gerald Soffen, director of university programs for the Greenbelt center. "And NASA has a strong interest in encouraging minority education and research."
Other participating schools include Bowie State, Virginia's Hampton University and Norfolk State, Howard University in Washington, North Carolina A&T, Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala.
Dr. Peterson said the network -- known as MU-SPIN, for Minority University-Space Interdisciplinary Network -- is expected to quickly expand to 37 minority schools and eventually to more than 170.
There are four national supercomputing centers that have been established by the National Science Foundation: at Cornell University, the University of Illinois, Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of California at San Diego.
The sophisticated ETA-10 supercomputer was being used actively by scientists at the Goddard center until a few days before it was crated up and trucked to Morgan, as an essential tool for atmospheric modeling, Dr. Soffen said.
Supercomputers are the fastest, most powerful and most expensive computers on the market, capable of attacking computational problems once considered impossibly complex.
Among their many uses are aircraft design, oil prospecting and simulations of global climate and weather patterns. Supercomputers in Hollywood create special effects for movies and television shows.
As an example of their speed, an outmoded Cray-1 supercomputer -- working at 160 million operations per second -- might take five hours to perform the 3 trillion calculations needed to design a missile nose cone. A personal computer would take more than six years.
The ETA-10 was built by a now-defunct subsidiary of Control Data Corp. known as ETA Systems.
Control Data is offering support and training services to Morgan for the computer, a fairly compact, air-cooled instrument housed in its own climate-controlled room at the university.
"This is a first-rate computer, state-of-the-art when it was introduced and still widely used," said Dr. Milton Halem, chief of the space data and computing division at Goddard.
Among other universities in Maryland, the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University employs specialized "mini-supercomputers" and taps into the national supercomputing networks when more computing power is need, said Dennis O'Shea, a Hopkins spokesman.
The big gun at the University of Maryland College Park is a "connection machine," a "massively parallel processor" that isn't as fast as the ETA-10 but ideal for such number-crunching tasks as analyzing deep-space photographs.
Dr. Peterson said the MU-SPIN network will consume only about 10 percent of the supercomputer's operating time, and marketing the ETA-10's capabilities to private companies and other interested parties will help provide money to maintain it.
But much of its time will be dedicated to student and faculty research needs and training the lucky young scientists who suddenly have a world-class computer at their fingertips.
"It's a natural attraction to students who want to learn," Dr. Peterson said. "It unlocks the imagination a bit."