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Railgun shot heard round the world

Navy researchers notched a world record today at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., when they fired off a projectile packing 33 megajoules of energy using an electromagnetic railgun. That's as much kinetic energy as a 33-ton semi has when it's traveling at 100 mph.

The point of the experiment is to extend the reach of weapon systems aboard ships.

"The 33-megajoule shot means the Navy can fire projectiles at least 110 nautical miles, placing sailors and Marines at a safe standoff distance and out of harm's way, and the high velocities achievable are tactically relevant for air and missile defense," Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, chief of naval research, said in a Navy report on the test. "This demonstration moves us one day closer to getting this advanced capability to sea."


A railgun's range could conceivably be up to 20 times farther than that of the conventional guns currently used on ships, with shells flying at five times the speed of sound. And because a railgun rely on cleverly controlled magnetic field rather than high-energy explosives to accelerate projectiles, the system eliminates the need to keep those explosives aboard ships.

The previous record for railgun power was 10 megajoules, demonstrated at Dahlgren in 2008. The Navy is aiming to have a 64-megajoule railgun system ready to go and aboard ship by 2025.

Wired's Danger Room reports that today's 33-megajoule shot sent the projectile speeding out of the gun at Mach 8. Click on the video above for a must-see, slo-mo view -- and to learn how railguns work, check out "How Stuff Works" and this PopSci report.

By the way, rail launchers have been proposed as a way to get to outer space as well. The concept even plays a part in "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," Robert Heinlein's 1966 sci-fi novel.


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