Friday, October 17, 2014

"Velocitas Eradico," Nazi mad scientists and other cool things a little research would have uncovered

I know I'm being picky...

This article by Sam Biddle on the testing of a new weaponized railgun isn't bad. It does a good job explaining the physics and keeping the gee-whiz factor in check while acknowledging the genuinely exciting potential of the technology.

But I do have a complaint and it's one of the few times I'd actually favor a bit more gee-whiz. My problem with the article is that it is very much the story of one specific development -- albeit a cool and possibly important one -- and it doesn't show much interest in the history of the technology or its larger potential.

Here are some of the highlights from the Wikipedia entry:
[The Navy] gave the project the Latin motto "Velocitas Eradico", Latin for "I, [who am] speed, eradicate".
In 1944, during World War II, Joachim Hänsler of Germany's Ordnance Office built the first working railgun, and an electric anti-aircraft gun was proposed. By late 1944 enough theory had been worked out to allow the Luftwaffe's Flak Command to issue a specification, which demanded a muzzle velocity of 2,000 m/s (6,600 ft/s) and a projectile containing 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) of explosive. The guns were to be mounted in batteries of six firing twelve rounds per minute, and it was to fit existing 12.8 cm FlaK 40 mounts. It was never built. When details were discovered after the war it aroused much interest and a more detailed study was done, culminating with a 1947 report which concluded that it was theoretically feasible, but that each gun would need enough power to illuminate half of Chicago.
In 2003, Ian McNab outlined a plan to turn this idea into a realized technology. The accelerations involved are significantly stronger than human beings can handle. This system would be used only to launch sturdy materials, such as food, water, and fuel. Note that escape velocity under ideal circumstances (equator, mountain, heading east) is 10.735 km/s. The system would cost $528/kg, compared with $20,000/kg on the space shuttle.
I realize I complain about tech reporters getting carried away, but when something's this cool, it's OK to get a little more excited.

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