Saturday, February 23, 2008

Navy Acquires Experimental Rail Gun

In late January 2008, BAE Systems delivered a 32 Megajoule Laboratory Rail-Gun to the United States Navy. This spectacularly powerful weapon will eventually be capable of hitting a target the size of a car from more than 200 nautical miles away. Impact velocity will be somewhere between 7000 miles/hour to 44 000 miles/hour - 8 to 50 times the speed of sound! By comparison modern artillery weaponry can achieve a maximum projectile speed of about 3500 miles per hour. The best part is the projectile. It requires no propellant, it only weighs in at 7 pounds and, because it is basically a lump of metal, it’s cheap.

This weapon is incredibly powerful. Each shot packs more punch than a Tomahawk cruise missile.



Test firing of the 32MJ Railgun Lab Launcher.
Note the 'flames' trailing from the projectile. This is a result of the projectile traveling so fast that it essentially "burns the air", and not because there is some kind of propellant.


More after the jump.


Fearsome technical specifications aside, what are the implications of developing such a weapon? Will it have an impact (pardon the pun) on anyone besides enemies of the United States? The answer: Possibly.


Like most cutting-edge research, the real gains come from spinoff technology. Take the oft-cited moon missions from the 60's. Everything from medical imaging to ear thermometers are attributed to technology originally intended for space exploration missions. Hopefully there will be a similar result from development of the rail-gun.

Rail-guns operate by accelerating a ferro-magnetic projectile using strong magnetic fields (specifically the Lorentz force). One of the more obvious applications for this technology is launching objects into space/orbit. For decades scientists have speculated about building a large magnetic accelerator that would be capable of launching craft into space. It has the potential to drastically reduce the costs involved in sending something into orbit (like satellites, space station modules, etc). This would have many trickle down benefits for the many people like reducing communication costs, drastically decreasing transportation times for travellers (think New York to Paris in 30 minutes). Digging deeper, there is also a large amount of research being done to improve superconductors and power storage techniques (capacitors). Cheap high-temperature superconductors have thousands of potential applications: motors, fusion reactors, transformers, the list goes on.

So it can be shown that even though developing more destructive weaponry is arguably not the best thing to spend our money and time on at first blush, there are many benefits that could be had from such research. This doesn't just apply to rail-guns or weapons development in general however. Any technology that requires huge investment in resources can end up generating far more technology and beneficial results than initially expected. It should be something everyone should keep in mind when considering projects like the next moon/mars missions or the construction of the Large Hadron Collider.


More information about the rail-gun:
Details about the military's plans for the rail-gun on Military.com and Navweaps.com.

The basic theory of how a rail-gun works on Wikipedia.org.

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