Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

Electromagnetic railguns. How are they designed and built? How do they work? Can you explain the science and physics behind this technology?

Since 2004, producers, journalists, and top level military officials travelled to Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), asking the scientists and engineers who test the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored electromagnetic railgun for the answers.

Now, a group of aspiring experts - Commonwealth Governor's School students - can draw from their own experience to answer the toughest railgun questions.

More than 100 students arrived at the NSWCDD Electromagnetic Facility on April 18 with an education in physics covering electrical circuits, capacitance, resistance, magnetic fields, forces on particles in magnetic fields, kinematics in one dimension, projectile motion, Newton's laws, work and energy, and the ability to solve equations with algebraic expressions.

Before leaving, they used their knowledge of physics to design and build their own miniature electromagnetic railguns under the guidance of NSWCDD railgun engineers.

"They were briefed by engineers about how railgun works and we made it exciting for them," said Tom Boucher, NSWCDD Electromagnetic Railgun Test Director. "Students who expressed an interest in working at Dahlgren in the future were glad to hear about student programs offering opportunities to come here during the summer."

Boucher's tour immersed students in two intense hours of academic and practical railgun education featuring six stations called, "see the railgun (in slow motion); shoot a railgun; build a railgun; instrument a railgun; touch a railgun; and power a railgun."

Each student demonstrated electromagnetic principles by building their own railgun, said Boucher.

Then the high school students - from King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties - learned how to measure the impact of their mini-railguns.

In the "instrument a railgun" station, they used the electronic instrumentation used for rail gun testing - high speed video and accelerometers - to measure the velocity of an object in flight and calculate the object's kinetic energy.

"They measured velocities of paintballs and compared it to railgun velocities," said Boucher. "They also shrunk aluminum cans by generating a magnetic field from capacitors similar to what we charge for the Navy railgun."

"The Dahlgren scientists and engineers have done a really good job in terms of matching up the actual equations and the academic content the students are learning," said Commonwealth Governor's School teacher Kevin Bywaters. "Academically, this event gives our students a chance to see there's more to science than just worksheets and lab gear - there are real things being developed."

That includes the Navy's first industry-built electromagnetic railgun prototype launcher.

The students from Commonwealth Governor's School saw and touched the railgun first tested at Dahlgren Feb. 28, 2012. The firing on that date kicked off a two-month long test series by ONR to evaluate the first of two industry-built launchers. The tests will bring the Navy closer to a new naval gun system capable of extended ranges against surface, air and ground targets.

"The big thing from my perspective is that our students saw some of the cutting edge technology being developed right in their backyard," said Bywaters. "This is home to them and a lot of the engineers talking to us are from this area. This is really cool stuff that nobody else in the world is doing. It's happening here and they don't have to go somewhere else to find high tech jobs - they can do it right here."

When fully developed, the electromagnetic railgun will give Sailors a dramatically increased multi-mission capability. Its increased velocity and extended range over traditional shipboard weapons will allow them to conduct precise, long-range naval surface fire support for land strikes; ship self-defense against cruise and ballistic missiles; and surface warfare to deter enemy vessels. The Navy's near-term goal is a 20 to 32-megajoule weapon that shoots a distance of 50 to 100 nautical miles.

NSWCDD scientists and engineers share technology by participating in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics activities and other programs that promote the youth of our community to pursue careers in technical disciplines Through these programs and educational partnerships with local schools, NSWCDD actively seeks opportunities to give area youths a panorama of the world of science and engineering.

NSWC Dahlgren's broad spectrum of unique resources, including workforce, infrastructure, and relationships with industry, have made it a premier naval scientific and engineering institution dedicated to solving a diverse set of complex technical problems confronting the warfighter, whether on land, in the air, on the sea or in space.

Commonwealth Governor's School is a regional program for gifted students who apply for admission. It's a half day program where students take core subjects - math, English, science and social studies - and develop technology skills for effective communication, investigation, and presentation. Community partnerships provide year-round, as well as service-learning, opportunities.