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Burst of Electricity Replaces Explosives in Experimental Navy ‘Gun’

General Atomics, which has been working for years to harness electrical energy to launch fighter jets from an aircraft carrier, is using the same knowledge to lob a projectile at a target 200 miles away.

The San Diego-based defense contractor is a key player in the Navy’s experimental rail gun program.

On Jan. 31, the Navy said it completed a watershed test of its electromagnetic cannon, firing a projectile with a record amount of force: 10 megajoules of muzzle energy. A joule is one watt of power radiated for one second. The gun’s muzzle energy is 10 million times that.

The military conducted its test at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in northern Virginia. General Atomics was one contractor on the project.

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The rail gun does not use chemical explosives like conventional weapons.

Instead, it uses a surge of electricity to launch the projectile.

For the January experiment, the gun required 30 megajoules of energy released from a bank of heavy-duty capacitors, said Elizabeth D’Andrea, program manager for the rail gun at the Office of Naval Research. The force of the magnetic field propels the bullet out of the barrel at seven times the speed of sound.

D’Andrea said her office plans tests using progressively more energy in the final prototype, and said General Atomics will provide her lab with additional equipment during the spring and summer so the lab can conduct a 16 megajoules test.


Travels At Speed Of Sound

Navy officials are working to create a gun that can launch a projectile at seven times the speed of sound and travel 200 miles. The Navy wants to demonstrate a prototype rail gun by 2018.

How soon would a ship equipped with rail guns be stationed at Naval Base San Diego on 32nd Street? Possibly by 2020 or 2025, D’Andrea said, if the Navy decides to continue the project.

The object shot from the gun would not need old-fashioned explosives to do damage. By the time the projectile arrived at its target, it would be traveling at five times the speed of sound. The impact alone would make it lethal.

The Navy’s current 5-inch gun, the Mark 45, has a range of nearly 20 miles. The gun is deployed on Navy destroyers.

General Atomics has two contracts to do rail gun work. One is for the power supply. The other is for a gun barrel described by D’Andrea as “a more tactical system.”

So far, General Atomics has helped the Navy refurbish some Army capacitors for the test gun, said Scott Forney, vice president of the company’s Electromagnetic Systems Division.

General Atomics might build its tactical gun barrel at its facility in Rancho Bernardo, Forney said.

General Atomics is privately held and does not publicize its sales figures.

The Navy uses the term “muzzle energy” to measure the power of a blast. The mathematical formula for muzzle energy is one-half times mass times velocity squared.

D’Andrea said the gun at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., is a test gun and is not designed to go into the field. Each increase of power on the rail gun will be a record amount of energy, she said.

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