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Navy Uses Electromagnets to Launch Fighter Jet

electromagnetic aircraft launch system

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System launches its first F/A-18E Super Hornet on Saturday Dec. 18 at Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst, N.J. (U.S. Navy / Kelly Schindler)

A railgun is designed to fire bullets without using explosive charges, relying on the repulsive force of electromagnetism instead. And the Navy has found a way to use that power to propel jet planes, too.

In a test conducted December 18 at a test site in Lakehurst, N.J., Naval Air Systems Command launched an F/A-18E Super Hornet using the power of electromagnets -- a technology the Navy hopes will eventually replace the archaic-sounding steam power currently used to catapult planes from the decks of aircraft carriers.

“I thought the launch went great,” said Lt. Daniel Radocaj, the test pilot from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 who piloted the first plane propelled by the new technology, which the Navy has named Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS.

“I got excited once I was on the catapult, but I went through the same procedures as on a steam catapult. The catapult stroke felt similar to a steam catapult and EMALS met all of the expectations I had.”

Newer, heavier and faster aircraft will require more force to catapult from the carrier decks than steam-powered systems can supply. Electromagnets will be able to deliver, and allow for smooth acceleration at both high and low speeds, increasing the carrier’s ability to launch aircraft, the Navy said in a press release.

The technology was first tested out by the Navy in 2004 with a full-scale, half-length prototype, where more than 1,500 launches were conducted. The EMALS will be a key element on the next-generation carrier U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford. Had this newest test failed, Wired's Danger Room pointed out, the Ford would have to be re-designed to include steam catapults.

The Navy made headlines at the beginning of the month by testing a new weapon also based on railgun technology, which used electromagnetic current to accelerate a non-explosive bullet at several times the speed of sound. The conductive projectile zips along a set of electrically charged parallel rails and out of the barrel at speeds up to Mach 7. 

The result: a weapon that can hit a target 100 miles or more away within minutes.

An electromagnetic railgun offers a velocity previously unattainable in a conventional weapon, speeds that are incredibly powerful on their own. In fact, since the projectile doesn't have any explosives itself, it relies upon that kinetic energy to do damage. And at 11 a.m. today, the Navy produced a 33-megajoule firing -- more than three times the previous record set by the Navy in 2008.