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Navy gets another hypersonic railgun, fires test shots

Posting in Design

The U.S. Navy has moved one step closer to attaining a devastating battleship-ready weapon. In February, naval researchers finally began testing a railgun prototype. Now, we've learned that they have a second test gun to blast targets with.

But whereas the first prototype was developed by military contractor BAE systems, this one comes courtesy of General Atomics, which recently announced a successful test firing shortly after the delivery of their "Advanced Containment Launcher" to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virgina. Though Navy officials have yet to detail how the two competing systems differ, both have proved capable of sending projectiles a distance of 100+ nautical miles at speeds of up to 5,600 mph. That's almost eight times farther and two times faster than conventional guns.

Electromagnetic Railguns achieve this by using electricity instead of traditional gun propellants such as explosive chemicals. Here's a brief explanation of how the technology works:

You can basically think of an electric rail gun as a really big electrical circuit. It consists of a power source, two conducting rails running parallel to each other and, in between them, a piece of conductive metal known an armature that houses the round. To fire a round, a powerful electrical current at a magnitude of about a million amps is sent flowing through the positive conducting rail, through the armature and back towards the power source in a semi-circular motion to generate an electromagnetic field. The force generated by the electromagnetic field is what causes the round to launch at such high velocity.

The Navy chose to pursue development of the launcher system through the two industry teams—General Atomics and BAE Systems—as a way of reducing risk in the program and to foster innovation in next-generation shipboard weapons. “We’re evaluating and learning from both prototype designs, and we’ll be folding what we learn from the evaluations into the next phase of the program,” said EM Railgun program manager Roger Ellis.

Both General Atomics and BAE Systems have already started working on concept designs for a next-generation prototype EM Railgun with improved firing rates. Further advancements include upgrades to the automatic projectile loading systems and thermal management systems for the barrel.

Officials plan to evaluate the concept designs at the end of the year.

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— By on October 21, 2012, 9:40 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure