Nasa has used its supercomputers to study colliding black holes
Nasa is making a bid to join the elite group using supercomputers whose power is measured in petaflops.
By 2009 the US space agency aims to be running a petaflop supercomputer that will be able to do 1,000 trillion calculations per second.
By 2012 it hopes to have boosted the power of this machine to 10 petaflops, to help with modelling and simulation.
If it manages the feat, it will be one of only a few organisations that can tap such vast number-crunching power.
The supercomputer will be installed at Nasa's Ames Research Center at Moffet Field, California, the site of its existing supercomputer facility. Nasa's current top supercomputer, called Columbia, was turned on in 2004 and has a theoretical peak of 88.88 teraflops. This makes it the 20th most powerful supercomputer on the planet, according to the Top 500 Project which compiles a list of the relative performance of these machines.
Running a petaflop computer would catapult Nasa into the top five on this list. Currently, the most powerful supercomputer on Earth is BlueGene/L which has a top speed of 478.2 teraflops.
Petaflop computers are expected to debut in the next release of the Top 500 list which is due in June.
The Pleiades Project, as Nasa has christened its updating project, will enlist the help of Intel and SGI to create the machine.
In a statement Ames Director Pete Worden said the supercomputing facility was needed to enable it "higher fidelity" modelling and simulation of future missions.
Nasa has used its current supercomputer to investigate the performance of hypersonic aircraft, simulate lander deployments and model fabrics for future spacesuits.
"This additional computational performance is necessary to help us achieve breakthrough scientific discoveries," said Mr Worden.