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Incredible, sci-fi railgun takes step toward reality

Navy Railgun 2008 Test

U.S. Navy engineers at the Office of Naval Research prepared and test-fired a slug from their rail gun in a 2008 test firing. On Friday, December 9, the ONR will attempt to break its own record. (U.S. Navy video by John Williams)

A theoretical dream for decades, the futuristic railgun -- which uses magnets to shoot bullets for hundreds of miles at speeds of up to Mach 7 -- just took another step toward reality.

Military supply company Raytheon announced Monday that it had been awarded a $10 million naval contract to develop a way to supply enough juice to power the whopping gun -- which could someday reshape naval warfare.

"This new system will dramatically change how our Navy defends itself and engages enemies while at sea," said Joe Biondi, vice president of advanced technology for Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems business.

Rather than relying on a explosion to fire a projectile, the railgun uses an electomagnetic 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.

But it takes a heck of a lot of electricity to achieve such a velocity.

To supply it, Raytheon’s building a “Pulse Forming Network” or PFN. That's a large power system that stores up electrical power and then converts it to a pulse that is directed into the gun's barrel, John Cochran, the railgun program manager in Raytheon's Advanced Technology Group, told CNET’s News.com.

Navy scientists with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) have been hard at work on the railgun itself for years, even as the agency admits it could take a decade or more to become practical. The ONR hit a new milestone last fall, successfully firing the railgun for the 1,000th time on Mon., Oct. 31, in Dahlgren, Va., -- edging the state-of-the-art weapon toward real-world deployment.

The next step: turning the test versions of the railgun into an actual gun. Current firings have been limited to Naval test facilities on dry land.

The future of the railgun looked in doubt last summer. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted in April of 2011 to eliminate funding for two of the Navy’s most futuristic (and by the same token least concrete) weapons: the free electron laser, essentially a super-powered death ray, and the railgun.

That changed on Dec. 31, 2011, when President Obama finally signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, or H.R. 1540. A section in that bill demands an update on the feasibility of the electromagnetic railgun, but doesn't kill the weapon outright.

Instead it delays the end, requiring the Secretary of Defense to submit a report this summer on the feasibility of developing and deploying the electromagnetic rail gun system to be used for either land- or ship-based force protection.

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