Last week the Navy took its best shot–and it was a doozy. The shot, fired on December 10th, broke the world record for the most powerful shot, as the 23-pound aluminum projectile rocketed out of the Navy’s electromagnetic railgun at a reported speed of Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound.
Today’s 33-megajoule shot–powerful enough to launch 33 Smart cars at 100 mph–means the Navy can fire projectiles at least 125 miles, keeping military personnel at a safe distance from their targets, according to the Office of Naval Research. [Popular Science]
The weapon is called the XM-25, Counter Defilade (a word I had to look up) Target Engagement System–basically, it provides a way to shoot someone who is hiding behind an obstacle. It works by shooting a mini-grenade-like round that is programmed to detonate after passing the barrier. The detonation scatters lethal shrapnel toward the enemy target.
The weapon’s computing sight measures the distance to the target precisely using a laser, and corrects automatically for such factors as air pressure, temperature, relative elevation etc. Buttons above the trigger allow the point at which the shells will detonate to be moved nearer or further away. [The Register]
For DARPA, the secretive military research agency, it’s not enough for a prosthetic limb to simply resemble a normal one, or for a patient to be able to move it through some remote control. DARPA-backed engineers are attempting to build a system in which peripheral nerves would be reattached to artificial limbs, which could send signals to a brain sensor that could reply. This would be a vast improvement over prosthetics that require conscious directives, and could turn a prosthetic into something that responds the way an ordinary limb would.
Darpa’s after a prosthetic that can record motor-sensory signals right from peripheral nerves (those that are severed when a limb is lost) and then transmit responding feedback signals from the brain. That means an incredibly sensitive platform, “capable of detecting sufficiently strong motor-control signals and distinguishing them from sensory signals and other confounding signals,” in a region packed tightly with nerves. Once signals are detected, they’ll be decoded by algorithms and transmitted to the brain, where a user’s intended movements would be recoded and transmitted back to the prosthetic. [Wired.com]
According to the team behind the system at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, tests on monkeys have shown that the primates have remarkable success controlling a prosthesis through a cortical chip implanted in their brains, and researchers have undertaken some human tests. What remains to be seen, though, is how much dexterity people can get through this process.
The US Missile Defense Agency’s flying laser failed to shoot down a test missile last week. Though in February the same plane successfully destroyed one from 50 miles away, last week’s test at a weapons range off California’s coast was meant to show the Airborne Laser Testbed‘s (ALTB) ability to hit missiles at a 100-mile range.
The laser and jumbo jet combo successfully tracked the missile and hit it, but stopped short of complete destruction, reports AOL News, which broke the story. The agency had not announced the test, which it had rescheduled several times.
“Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to destroy the target missile,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement…. [The test], which was designed to demonstrate the weapon’s capability at ranges twice the distance of the initial test, had been delayed at least four times due to various glitches, including problems with the target missile. At one point, the test was scheduled to take place at the opening of a major missile defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., but was delayed due to a software glitch. [AOL News]
Unmanned aerial vehicles beware: We’ve got laser weapons.
This week defense contractor Raytheon debuted video of a test conducted with the U.S. Navy in California this May, in which the company’s laser weapon shot down four UAVs. The shaky black-and-white footage shows lasers locked on an aircraft until it loses control and plunges into the sea.
The Navy’s laser depends upon a guidance system it already uses on its ships—Raytheon’s Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, which normally uses radar to guide a 20mm Gatling gun.
Raytheon developed the system after buying six off-the-shelf commercial lasers from the car industry and joining them to make a single, powerful beam guided by the Phalanx’s radars. Unlike other tests which have been conducted on aircraft it uses a solid state laser rather than a chemical generated beam [The Telegraph].
Yesterday morning, about 70,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, the Boeing-designed X-51A Waverider “scramjet” set a new record. Reaching Mach 5 (almost 4,000 miles per hour), it wasn’t the fastest jet flight, but by burning for over 200 seconds it became the longest flight of its kind. The previous scramjet record, held by the NASA X-43, was 12 seconds.
A scramjet is similar to a simpler engine called a ramjet, but faster. The engines on most commercial jets have turbines to push air inside, but a ramjet is basically a tapered tube. As air flows through it, the shape of the tube compresses the air and, once the engine mixes this air with fuel, it ignites.
Unlike well-understood ordinary ramjets, which slow the air passing through them to subsonic speeds, the X-51 is intended to maintain combustion in a supersonic internal airflow — hence the name scramjet, for supersonic combustion ramjet — a feat often likened to “striking a match in a hurricane”. [The Register]
You can’t slip much past dedicated amateur astronomers. A month after the United States Air Force launched its space plane, the X-37B, under a veil of secrecy, backyard sky-watchers say they’ve found it, along with clues to its mission.
Though the military still won’t open up about what the classified X-37B actually is, officers have been insistent about what it isn’t: a space weapon. Indeed, defense experts have guessed recently that the craft is testing next-generation spy satellite tech, and the observations back that up.
The amateur sky watchers have succeeded in tracking the stealthy object for the first time and uncovering clues that could back up the surveillance theory. Ted Molczan, a team member in Toronto, said the military spacecraft was passing over the same region on the ground once every four days, a pattern he called “a common feature of U.S. imaging reconnaissance satellites.” In six sightings, the team has found that the craft orbits as far north as 40 degrees latitude, just below New York City. In theory, on a clear night, an observer in the suburbs might see the X-37B as a bright star moving across the southern sky [The New York Times].
In addition, the plane’s path would carry it over places the U.S. is interested in watching, like Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, according to Greg Roberts, one of the astronomers to track the X-37B. More than uncovering its secret mission, he was interested in finding the plane because it was difficult. Said Roberts:
“If the data were freely available, we would probably not have bothered with it. I see little sense in tracking objects for which data is freely available. It’s like reinventing the wheel. So as long as there are missions with little or no information, I personally will be interested in the challenge of finding them” [MSNBC].
For more about the Air Force in space, check out DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait’s post at Bad Astronomy.
Bad Astronomy: What Is the Air Force Doing with Space?
80beats: Air Force to Launch Secret Space Plane Tomorrow—But Don’t Ask What It’s For
80beats: DARPA Loses Contact with Mach-20 “Hypersonic Glider” During Test Flight
Image: U.S. Air Force
Lately we’ve been covering the doings of DARPA, the Defense Department’s mad scientist wing that conducts kooky scavenger hunts and loses hypersonic gliders. But today the focus is on the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—an agency President Obama created last year to foster research on creative alternative energy projects rather than futuristic weaponry. ARPA-E, which is part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, announced this week grants totaling $106 million.
The first of the three groups of projects funded by the ARPA-E uses microorganisms to create liquid fuels.
Most of the leading fourth-generation biofuel companies that utilize bio-chemical approaches are modifying the genetic structure of the organism to transform a sugar substrate and secrete either pure “drop in” fuels like diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel, or gasoline substitutes like ethanol or biobutanol [Greentech Media].
The microorganisms in the liquid-fuel experiments need electricity to produce fuel, but many of the researchers are devising ways to use solar energy as the power source so the projects can use renewable fuels to create renewable fuels.
It was a big week for experimental military aircraft, with the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane and the Navy’s biofuel-powered “Green Hornet” both achieving successful test flights. But the most ambitious—the HTV-2 hypersonic glider under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—lost contact with its operators during its run.
Launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. on April 22, the unmanned HTV-2 was planned to cross the Pacific and impact the ocean north of Kwajalein Atoll in the first of two flights to demonstrate technology for a prompt global strike weapon [Aviation Week]. It successfully achieved separation from its booster rocket high in the atmosphere; however, nine minutes into the test the glider lost communication. Now the military is studying the test flight telemetry to figure out where the HTV-2 would have crashed down.
When it comes to keeping secrets, the U.S. Air Force knows how to stay mum. On Thursday, the Air Force will launch its secret space plane, the unmanned X-37B aircraft, from Cape Canaveral. The project has been a decade in the works and cost millions of dollars to develop–but we civilians have little idea what it’s for.
Once launched via an Atlas V rocket, the plane is expected to spend days or weeks orbiting Earth and performing classified experiments before landing back in California. If successful, the launch will fulfill the Defense Department’s long-time dream: the orbital flight of a military vehicle that combines an airplane’s agility with a spacecraft’s capacity to travel in orbit at 5 miles per second [Popular Mechanics].
The project itself has had an interesting past. It was begun by NASA in 1999 but was later adopted by the Defense Department, and was first placed under the auspices of DARPA before finally finding a home with the Air Force. The Air Force immediately threw the X-37B behind a veil of secrecy, leading some experts to speculate that this could be the military’s attempt to weaponize the final frontier. There are also concerns that the mysterious project could set off an orbital arms race with countries like China.