Navy test fires futuristic electromagnetic 'railgun'
David Edwards
Published: Friday February 1, 2008 |
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The US Navy test fired the world's most powerful electromagnetic railgun Thursday, launching a projectile at a velocity of 2,500 meters per second, or 5,600 miles per hour, into a bunker.

The test marks the latest step in US efforts to develop a futuristic naval gun that can hit a target more than 200 nautical miles away with a non-explosive slug traveling at between five and seven times the speed of sound.

Instead of chemical propellants, the railgun uses electromagnetic energy to propel a slug along rails before launching it at a velocity of about Mach 7, officials said.

"The gun is designed to launch these projectiles extremely far, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 nautical miles, and their impact velocity is extremely high, somewhere in the vicinity of Mach 5," said Jim Boyle, a spokesman for the Office of Naval Research.

"So it is an extremely fast moving, long range system," he said.

The test model bears little resemblance to a gun. Instead, thick black cables plug into the rear of what looks like a long rectangular grill.

That armature holds the rails together as a powerful electric current surges through them, pushing the slug forward.

In Thursday's test, the most powerful charge ever -- 10.64 megajoules of energy -- was sent coursing through the railgun. (A joule is the amount of energy needed to lift an apple a meter straight up.)

It caused the round to accelerate to a velocity of "just slightly over 2,500 meters per second," or 5,600 miles an hour, said Colin Babb, another navy spokesman.

The slug was blasted only about 20 meters (70 feet) into a bunker lined with metal boxes filled with sand.

"At this phase of the project, they are working solely on the science and technology related to the barrel of the gun, so they are interested in how projectiles interact with the rails," said Babb.

"At this facility and in this test, they are not doing anything with regard to range, how far it goes, what the projectile does per se," he said.

Although the 237 million dollar program is still in its initial phases, the navy believes it holds promise for use on future electric powered warships.

A working railgun would allow warships to operate a greater distances from their targets, and improve safety and storage space on board ships by doing away with explosive warheads and propellants.

Some experts believe railguns also might be useful in targeting ballistic missiles.
This video is from The Associated Press, broadcast February 1, 2008.

(with wire reports)