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China Working on Giant Rail Gun to Shoot Astronauts Into Space

Astronaut Rail Gun

Chinese scientists are working on a giant electromagnetic launch track to launch a massive 50-ton spaceplane — longer than a Boeing 737 — into orbit.

As the South China Morning Post reports, the "giant rail gun" system is designed to accelerate a hypersonic aircraft to speeds of up to Mach 1.6. Once it reaches the end of the track, its engine then accelerates it to the edge of space at seven times the speed of sound.

If actually built, it could greatly cut down on the amount of fuel such a craft would need to get to space, allowing it to carry bigger payloads — and save a considerable amount of money as well.

Needless to say, it's a wildly ambitious plan. But according to the SCMP, scientists are already actively working on turning the idea into a reality.

Electromagnetic Catapult

China isn't the first to consider the use of an electromagnetic space launch system. In the 1990s, NASA started constructing a test rail that measured 50 feet long.

But due to a lack of funding and plenty of technical hurdles, the project was abandoned.

The US military also developed much lower-speed electromagnetic catapults to launch planes from aircraft carriers. However, an early version of the system, installed on the carrier USS Ford, has been plagued by problems.

According to SCMP, the US military has mostly abandoned efforts to develop rail guns in favor of hypersonic missiles. But that hasn't dissuaded China from trying anyway.

In tests, scientists found they needed to accelerate the aircraft to blistering speeds to forego the need for a rocket's first stage. Releasing the aircraft at the right moment has also proven particularly difficult thanks to colliding shockwaves.

Nonetheless, scientists have determined that the idea is still technically feasible — and safe enough for astronauts to endure. The country's considerable investments in developing maglev technologies could also give it an advantageous position.

But whether it'll actually see the light of day — nevermind shoot any astronauts into orbit — remains to be seen.

More on rail guns: A Gun Company Is Now Selling a Handheld Semi-Automatic Railgun