Star Wars weapon that's real

Star Wars weapon that's real
The US Navy has built a rail gun that can hit targets much faster and cheaper than conventional missiles.
PHOTO: AFP

Once an imaginary weapon on Star Wars, the electromagnetic gun is now reality.

The railgun, which made its debut at the US Navy's Science and Technology expo early this year, fires a projectile faster, farther and with greater impact than a gun that uses gunpowder.

In development for years, the weapon is able to fire a projectile at Mach 7, or 8,700kmh, hitting targets 180km away.

The massive railgun that needs just one sailor to operate relies on the electromagnetic energy of the Lorentz force - the combination of electric and magnetic forces on a point charge - for power. The Navy likes the weapon for several reasons, not least of which is its range of 180km and the fact that it does not require explosive warheads.

That makes it far safer for sailors, and cheaper for taxpayers. According to the US Navy, each 18-inch projectile costs about US$25,000 (S$35,400), compared to US$500,000 to US$1.5 million for conventional missiles.

The US Navy has been talking about using railguns for the past 10 years. The Office of US Naval Research launched a prototype programme in 2005, with an initial investment of US$250 million committed through 2011. The US Navy anticipates spending about that much more by 2017.

"It will give our adversaries a huge moment of pause to go: 'Do I even want to engage a US naval ship?'" US Rear Admiral Matt Klunder told reporters. "Because you are going to lose."

"Frankly, we think it is the right time for them to know what we've been doing behind closed doors in a Star Wars fashion," he added.

"It's now reality, not science fiction."

QUICK FACTS

Muzzle velocity
2.5km per second (Mach 7.5) − almost twice as fast as conventional guns.

Range
Target 400km away could be hit in six minutes. Conventional guns have maximum range of 80km.

Projectile
Destroys target by kinetic force, eliminating need for explosive warhead.

HOW IT WORKS

1. The projectile is held between two metal rails inside an armature − the central core of a massive dynamo.

2. Electric current is passed through the rails, creating opposing magnetic fields that propels the armature forward at great velocity.

3. The shell detaches from the armature at speeds of up to seven times the speed of sound to a distance of 180km.


This article was first published on November 21, 2015.
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