Navy Plans to Test Electromagnetic Mach 7 Railgun at Sea

High-speed camera captures the first full-energy shots from the Office of Naval Research-funded electromagnetic railgun prototype launcher that was recently installed at a test facility in Dahlgren, Va. (Image credit: U.S. Navy | John F. Williams)

The U.S. Navy is preparing new tests for a futuristic deadly weapon: an electromagnetic railgun that could fire shots at seven times the speed of sound.

Navy officials announced this month they plan to install and test a prototype of the railgun aboard a joint high-speed vessel in 2016, marking the first time this technology will be put through its paces at sea.

Instead of relying on explosive propellants, the railgun harnesses electromagnetic energy to accelerate and launch a projectile between two conductive rails. An operational railgun at sea would be able to deliver a lethal blow from 110 nautical miles (185 kilometers) away, striking targets that range from enemy warships and aircraft to small boats and missiles, Navy officials said.

In this photo released in June 2012, the second of two electromagnetic (EM) railgun industry prototype launchers is evaluated at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division. (Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

"This capability will allow us to effectively counter a wide range of threats at a relatively low cost, while keeping our ships and sailors safer by removing the need to carry as many high-explosive weapons," Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, the Navy's chief engineer, said in a statement.

The Navy has been testing this powerful gun on land for nearly a decade. In one landmark trial at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., in 2010, the military fired a 33-megajoule electromagnetic railgun shot. That's roughly equivalent to the energy required to toss 33 cars each weighing 1 ton (0.9 tonnes) at 100 mph (160 km/h).

The Navy has not yet determined which ship classes will receive a railgun when the technology becomes operational. Joint high-speed vessels are typically used to transport cargo and soldiers. They are not used in combat, and Navy officials say they have no plan to permanently install a railgun on any ship of that class.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.