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Air Force builds rocket-powered maglev sled capable of traveling at speeds up to 633 mph

The U.S. Air Force is the reigning champion when it comes to the world’s fastest maglev vehicles. A team from the 846th Test Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico set a new world record with a 513 mph run on March 4. They then broke that record again two days later with an even faster run of 633 mph.

“Today was the fastest test we’ve ever done with the maglev,” said Lt. Col. Shawn Morgenstern, the Commander of the 846th TS. “We went 633 miles per hour. Wednesday, we went 513 miles per hour, and prior to that, we went 510 — which was a couple years ago.”

Maglev technology uses magnetism to levitate vehicles, allowing them to move without touching the ground or another surface. This form of transportation is frictionless, making it possible for  vehicles to move at very high speeds. The Shanghai Maglev Train is the fastest commercial maglev train and connects the Shanghai Pudong International Airport with other outlying parts of Shanghai. More commonly known as the Transrapid, the train is capable of transporting passengers at speeds up to 270 mph.

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The Air Force’s maglev sled uses the same principles as those maglev trains, but the Air Force’s setup is unique: The team uses a rocket to propel the sled along a 2,100 foot-long track at a rate of up to 928 feet per second. The sled levitates above its track using superconducting magnets that are cooled to 4 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. It took six months of development and research to prepare the sled and track technology for these two world-record runs.

Before these latest back-to-back record-setting runs, the last successful maglev attempt was made in 2013, when the Air Force set the previously existing world record of 510 mph.

Going forward, the team is focusing on its sled design, looking at different, lighter-weight materials and exploring other improvements they can make to increase the speed of the sled even further. While world speed records are an exciting side benefit to the project, the maglev technology is being developed for a more practical application — advanced weapons testing. The maglev technology produces a vibration-free ride that is ideal for testing sensitive weapon system components that otherwise would be damaged or explode under traditional testing conditions.