Making Baseballs Go Supersonic

When professional engineers are giggling like kids, you know something interesting is about to happen. [Destin Sandlin] of [Smarter Every Day], [Jeremy Fielding], and a few other like-minded individuals have built a very impressive air cannon, capable of launching baseballs at supersonic velocities.

Baseball execution. Not for sensitive viewers.

The muzzleloading canon consists of a large pressure chamber and vacuum chamber stuck together, with a plug and baseball separating the two. The barrel forms part of the vacuum chamber, and is sealed off at the muzzle end with plastic tape that ruptures when fired. The firing mechanism runs the entire length of the pressure chamber, exiting out the back where it is held in place by a large pneumatic sear mechanism. When the sear is released, it “pops the cork” between the two chambers, sending high-pressure nitrogen into the vacuum chamber, forcing the ball forward. This causes the plug rod to shoot out the back of the pressure chamber, where it is stopped by a pneumatic piston. The entire thing is permanently mounted on a trailer. A professional-looking control box is used to operate the beast from behind the safety of a steel blast shield.

Be sure to watch the videos after the break with subtitles turned on. The first is the highlights reel, and the second is a very entertaining hour-long behind the scenes look. To the surprise of the builders, they were able to shoot a baseball at Mach 1.38 (1050 mph or 1690 km/h) on the very first try, with only a partially pressurized system and a leaking vacuum chamber. When impacting the thick steel target, the ball disintegrates completely, imprinting its stitches on the target. [Destin] and co recorded the results with his usual high-speed cameras, but also included a Schlieren rig that allowed them to photograph the shock waves and Mach cones generated by the speeding ball. After a few shots, the bolts were stripped out of the pneumatic piston that stops the plug rod, which is no surprise judging by how much the steel frame flexes in that area. Continue reading “Making Baseballs Go Supersonic”