Railguns: A practical example of science fiction technology
In this article:
- The railgun, so long a secondary weapon in various science fiction universes, is now a reality.
- They are a completely different type of weapon and promise to exceed any cannon now in existence.
- They can be easily incorporated into science fiction stories, and are adaptable to far more than weapons.
Erik has set up this week’s promised post beautifully in his appeal for examples of real, practical science fiction technology. We’ve had one demonstrated for us within the last month: the railgun. I believe that railguns, rather than nukes, will most likely be what humanity carries into space for defense.
Science fiction has made some notable use of the idea of railguns already, but they haven’t really caught on in the “stars”science fiction, meaning the universes with the biggest exposure and cultural impact.* I personally know of no reference to them in Star Wars or Star Trek, though Stargate began to incorporate them with Atlantis. They have been used extensively in sci-fi video games, including the Metal Gear, Red Faction, and Quake series. They have also been featured in Warhammer 40,000 and anime like Gundam and Macross. I have no doubt they are about to get much more popular for a simple reason: They’ve become reality.
Railguns are surprisingly simple machines that are also revolutionary in a number of ways. Instead of propelling its ammunition by explosive force, railguns use electromagnetic energy. The devices use parallel rails that form a sort of barrel. A massive burst of electricity is transformed into an huge electromagnetic surge that pushes the projectile to incredible speeds. It is the first time in hundreds of years that humanity has developed a weapon that hasn’t relied on expanding gasses for its locomotion.
Railguns were first conceived back in the 1970s and were pushed forward as a result of President Ronald Reagan and his Strategic Defense Initiative. Over the past few years, the U.S. Navy has been testing a version it plans to use to replace the guns on its surface fleet. They’ve made rapid progress, going from concept to working model in a matter of only a year or two. Over the last few years they operated an experimental eight megajoule weapon, and last month they successfully tested one rated to thirty-three. The final product should be able to produce an incredible sixty-four megajoules.
To put this into perspective, a single megajoule (the unit of measure used to gauge the destructive power of naval weapons) is roughly equivalent to a one ton car impacting a target at roughly 100 miles per hour. When we multiply that by thirty-three or sixty-four, the results are spectacular.
Modern naval guns produce approximately nine megajoules of muzzle energy with each shot. The “baby” railgun produced nearly that amount of energy, and the thirty-three megajoule version tested last month more than triples it. A five inch naval gun has a range of about fifteen nautical miles. The finished railguns should have an effective range of over 250. Muzzle velocity in older weapons is measured in feet per second. (2,690 fps or approximately 1894 mph for a 16-inch heavy turret on an Iowa class battleship). The new railgun should clock in at Mach 7 when fired at sea level (5390 mph or 7905 fps) They will literally be able to launch projectiles into space (allowing them to hit targets all over the globe). The sheer force of impact is so powerful that explosive warheads are not even necessary, though designers are planning on adding guidance fins. Some pundits are arguing that there is no armor heavy enough to absorb an impact from a railgun, so it makes more sense to remove a ship’s armor, allowing projectiles to just pass through while doing the least damage possible. The naval railguns even have a significantly increased rate of fire over their explosive predecessors (though nothing like what we see Stargate: Atlantis…at least not yet).
The potential for a weapon like this in science fiction is nearly endless. Battles between ships over massive distances are completely practical. They might take on a flavor similar to the naval fights of World War II, though in three dimensions. Ships would line up in complex formations designed to maximize “fire”power, raining shells onto their enemies that would shatter structures to pieces and tear gaping holes in steel armor. Explosive weapons could be designed to bury themselves into a ship’s interior before detonation (using an enemy’s own atmosphere against them) and other projectiles might be built with radiological cores designed to disintegrate as they passed through a ship, poisoning the interior. There would always be the danger of over spray, putting planets and installations elsewhere in the system at risk. Interplanetary bombardment would be quite realistic using large, ground based cannons. Planetary defenses against invading fleets could be set up the same way. Further, they could be scaled up or down depending on the need.
But why stop with weapons? The same technology could be adapted to transportation and supply. Bases on other planets could be supplied by pods flung into space by railguns. Railguns could be used in asteroid mining, smashing planetoids into pieces allowing smaller craft to pick through the rubble for useful minerals. They could even be used for travel between systems a la Mass Effect.
I would encourage you to think through many of the smaller details of design that I do not have time to discuss here (i.e. the need for heat shielding on projectiles fired within an atmosphere to prevent them from disintegrating). If you have any thoughts or good examples, please share them in the comments.
*There is an apparent case to be made for including the word “star” in the title of your worlds if you want to make millions of dollars. I need a new title for my first book, since our upcoming e-zine nabbed the one I originally intended to use. Hmmm….
Posted on December 30, 2010, in Brian Melton, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, Stargate, Universes, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Iowa battleship, rail guns, railguns, science fiction, science fiction problems, space battles, Stargate, U.S. Navy, war in space. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.