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Railgun moves closer to real use
Navy shooting for new world record with test of railgun prototype

 The Navy will do another, more powerful test of the railgun at the Dahlgren base in King George County on Friday.
FILE/John F. Williams/U.S. NAVY
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Date published: 12/8/2010

VIDEO: See a 2007 test shot of the Railgun at the Dahlgren Naval Base.

By RUSTY DENNEN

For now, the power of what may prove to be the Navy's most formidable weapon is confined to a research and development lab at the Dahlgren base in King George County.

On Friday, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and BAE Systems will take another step in an ongoing quest to put electromagnetic railguns on ships in the fleet.

About 1 p.m., Navy brass, civilian engineers, contractors and reporters will watch a video feed of a projectile--traveling five times the speed of sound--smashing into a steel box filled with sand.

Until recently, a railgun has been a fantasy weapon for video gamers, the stuff of science fiction.

But the technology has been slowly moving toward reality.

The railgun works by a pulse of electricity traveling along two parallel rails to propel a projectile at tremendous speed.

Friday's shot, expected to use 32 megajoules of electromagnetic energy, is by far the most powerful to date. It will take only a fraction of a second, as long as the blink of an eye. It is expected to establish a new world record in the annals of electromagnetic acceleration.

The goal is to show the tactical relevance of the technology, the Navy said in a press release.

"The importance of the 32-megajoule demonstration is the feasibility of the system at an energy level that has military significance," said Roger Ellis, electromagnetic railgun program manager for the Office of Naval Research.

A megajoule is a measurement of energy associated with an object traveling at a certain speed. For example, a vehicle weighing a ton, moving at 100 mph, equals a megajoule of energy.

The Navy would like to have a fully functional 64-megajoule system aboard a ship by 2025.

A shot of that power could reach a target 100 nautical miles away in a matter of minutes. The projectile would travel so fast that no warhead is needed; kinetic energy is sufficient to destroy its target.

Another advantage is that it is safer for sailors because it uses no explosives.

There are formidable technological challenges. The gun requires huge amounts of electrical power and must be scaled down to fit on ships.

The first test shot was in 2006. Then, in January 2008, a prototype at Dahlgren achieved a shot of 10.6 megajoules, a record.

BAE Systems, a national defense contractor with an office in Stafford County, was awarded a $21 million contract last year to develop the railgun prototype.

NSWC Dahlgren Division is the largest tenant command of the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com