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Electromagnetic launcher will fire missiles eight times faster than sound

17 February, 2009

The US Office of Naval Research (ONR) has awarded BAE Systems a $21m contract to develop an advanced electromagnetic railgun, capable of firing missiles over distances of more than 320km at up to eight times the speed of sound. The 30-month contract is for the detailed design and delivery of a prototype railgun, based on a form of homopolar linear motor. A demonstration of the technology is planned for 2011.

Railguns use electrical energy instead of chemical energy to launch projectiles at extremely high velocities, thus achieving ranges that are up to ten times longer than are possible with conventional armaments. One of the greatest potential advantages is the comparative safety of the technology, which needs no explosives. This, combined with the smaller sizes of the shells, could also save valuable space on warships as well as reducing the risk of on-board explosions.

Another potential advantage is that electromagnetic guns could be much more consistent in their performance, with higher accuracies than conventional weapons. In theory, they could also achieve much faster firing rates than conventional weapons.

Essentially, the technology involves sending large currents along parallel rails and through a conductive projectile linked to the rails via sliding or rolling contacts. The current interacts with the magnetic fields generated by the rails and accelerates the projectile along the rails. The high-velocity projectiles will destroy targets by their kinetic energy, rather than by exploding.

There are still substantial technical obstacles to overcome, including ensuring that the barrel and rails are not deformed by the intense heat and energy of a launch. Massive capacitors will also be needed to store the energy for a full-scale launch, which  will involve currents of around a million Amps.

BAE’s new contract (which it will carry out in the US, in partnership with IAP Research and SAIC), follows its development of a laboratory-scale electromagnetic launcher with a potential energy capacity of 32 Megajoules in 2007. This railgun (shown above) is setting record launch energies at a US Navy test site in Virginia. In a demonstration last year (top photograph) , it developed more than 10 Megajoules of energy to fire a projectile at a muzzle velocity of 2.52km/s.

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