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Railgun tech takes a step towards warship reality

The Office of Naval Research Electromagnetic Railgun located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division fires a world-record setting 33 megajoule shot.

A war-ready electromagnetic railgun took a step closer to reality this week when the U.S. Navy awarded a defense contractor $10 million to develop a piece of the power system needed to hurl projectiles at speeds up to 5,000 miles per hour.

The contract is the latest indication that the military is serious about developing the futuristic technology that would, for example, allow warships to hit targets up to 220 miles away in less than six minutes.

"The new system will dramatically change how our Navy defends itself and engages enemies while at sea," Joe Bondi, vice president of advanced technology for Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems, said in a news release

The Naval Sea Systems Command awarded Raytheon the contract on Monday. 

Unlike traditional guns that use explosives to fire a shot, railguns employ an electromagnetic current to accelerate a projectile between a pair of electrically charged rails and out of a barrel, the Office of Naval Research explains.

Thus in addition to being able to reach targets from far out at sea, use of railguns would reduce the amount of explosives needed aboard ships. 

A Navy prototype made headlines in December 2010 when it fired a projectile packing 33 megajoules of energy — the same kinetic force a 33-ton semi has while traveling at 100 miles per hour. 

According to the Office of Naval Research, this is about half the energy envisioned for deployment at sea to reach distant targets.

In other words, the Navy needs to be able to generate a ton of energy and store it in confined space for railgun technology to work as envisioned.

Raytheon is working on a piece of this puzzle, a so-called pulse forming network, that allows electricity generated by the ship to be stored over several seconds and then sent it to the railgun to generate electromagnetic force.

Other hurdles include development of a gun that can withstand the considerable wear and tear of repeated use as well as the securing the funding required for further development.

If these hurdles are cleared, the Office of Naval Research notes, the railgun will be a "true warfighter game changer."

"Wide area coverage, exceptionally quick response and very deep magazines will extend the reach and lethality of ships armed with this technology."

To learn more about how railguns work, check out this explainer on How Stuff Works.

More on military technology:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.



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