For the first time ever, the US Navy has used a railgun to launch a fighter jet into the air. It may not be ready to launch spacecraft into orbit quite yet, but it's the first real step towards making that happen.
The Navy developed its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System as a replacement for the steam catapults currently used on aircraft carriers. The EMALS is a linear induction motor that's capable of accelerating a 100,000 pound aircraft to 240 miles per hour in the space of 300 feet. Compared to a steam catapult, the railgun catapult is much smaller, more efficient, simpler to maintain, gentler on airframes, and can deliver up to 30% more power. It's also capable of being cranked down a whole bunch, meaning that it can also launch smaller (and more fragile) unmanned drones.
This first EMALS test took place on dry land, but now that the Navy knows it works, it'll be integrated into the next generation of aircraft carriers, the first of which is scheduled to launch in 2015. Check out the video of the first launch, just below.