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What happens when NASA partners with Google? A quantum computer

The NASA and Google partnership shows the potential of private and public entities working together in space. First product: The D-Wave 2X quantum computer .

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Rupak Biswas, director of exploration technology at NASA Ames research center, speaks in front of a D-Wave 2X quantum computer in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday.

Stephen Lam/Reuters

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Solving some of the most complicated technological problems on or off this planet is what NASA and Google do best. Now, together, they are creating machines to exceed normal computing ability by 100 million times.

Google and D-Wave, a quantum-computing firm, are developing a new computer that can solve some types of complex problems that are next to impossible to solve on conventional computers at the NASA Ames campus in Mountain View, Calif., Bloomberg reported.

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"We have already encountered problems we would like to solve that are unfeasible with conventional computers,” John Giannandrea, an engineering vice president at Google, said at a press conference Tuesday. “We want to understand the future that may lie ahead of us in non-conventional computing."

The D-Wave 2X quantum computer is about the size of a backyard shed, which means it is slightly smaller than a typical supercomputer, according to PC World.

The computer uses quantum mechanics to perform calculations. Unlike virtually all other computers, in which a single bit represents either a zero or a one at any given time, quantum computing relies on bits that can simultaneously represent both zero and one. And while three conventional bits can represent one of 23, or 8, values at a time, three quantum bits, or qubits, can represent eight values at the same time. This allows quantum computers to perform in a second calculations which would take a single-core, conventional computer "10,000 years," according to Hartmut Neven, director of engineering at Google.

And while quantum computing won't necessarily speed up all of the calculations we rely upon computers for now, they are ideally suited for the types of optimization calculations important to NASA and Google.

The space agency hopes the new technology will be able to improve its simulation and encryption technology. Large-scale optimization problems, like air traffic control, could also benefit from qubits. Google relies on optimization calculations that would be well suited to quantum computing in many of its consumer-facing, artificial-intelligence technologies, like photo search and voice recognition. 

NASA and Google's partnership began 10 years ago, and this is not the only result. NASA has weighed in on Google projects, contributing to Google Earth, Google Sky, and, of course, Google Moon, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Some projects have been small. Google Earth View trekked to NASA's Kennedy Space Center and took a week's worth of photos to give the public a view into the space center in August 2012.

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Another collaboration yielded new drone technology. Google's drone experiments benefited from NASA's exemption on testing drones over the US, according to the Guardian. This would have been difficult under current federal drone regulations. By working together, the two organizations created innovative experiments in the skies.