The United States Air Force launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on a test flight early Wednesday, sending the weapon on a suborbital trajectory that reached thousands of miles downrange over the Pacific Ocean.
The Minuteman 3 ICBM blasted off from a silo at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base at 3:40 a.m. EDT (0740 GMT) on routine test flight that was monitored by analysts at the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Data from the test will be used to determine the readiness of the U.S. military's ICBM fleet.
The launch sent the Minuteman 3's single re-entry test vehicle about 4,200 miles (6,759 km) across the Pacific Ocean to a pre-designated target near the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The atoll is home to the U.S. Army's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
"These launches teach us a great deal and require a team approach," said Air Force Col. Carl DeKemper, the 576th Flight Test Squadron commander and mission director, in a statement. "The launch was part of our continuous self-assessment of the technical and weapons system expertise of our Airmen and the powerful capability of the ICBM fleet."
Wednesday's test marked the second this month of the Air Force's Minuteman 3 missile. An earlier test launched from Vandenberg on June 16. ?
The Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles have a range of more than 6,000 miles (9,656 km) and can travel at speeds of up to Mach 23 (15,000 mph or 24,000 kph) and reach heights of up to 700 miles (1,120 km) above Earth.
That means that Minuteman 3 missiles fly higher than the International Space Station, which orbits Earth at an altitude of about 220 miles (354 km), when they hit the peak of their trajectories.
Minuteman 3 ICBMs were first produced in June 1970, with production stopping in December 1978, according to the Air Force fact sheet. The Minuteman weapons system was first conceived of in the late 1950s as a strategic weapon with an intercontinental range to serve as strategic deterrent force for the U.S. military.
The missiles are housed in hardened underground silos and are watched over 24 hours a day by launch crews consisting of two officers per shift. The first Minuteman 1 missiles were deployed in the late 1960s.
Today, Air Force's Minuteman weapon arsenal consists of 450 Minuteman 3 ?missiles located at bases in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, according to an Air Force fact sheet. The missiles are made of three distinct stages that, when assembled, stand about 60 feet (18 meters) tall and weigh 79,432 pounds (32,158 kg).
The Air Force has also participated in a series of other test launches this year, including the April launch of the robotic X-37B space plane ? dubbed Orbital Test Vehicle 1 ? from Florida. That vehicle is still in Earth orbit today. [X-37B spacecraft photos.]
The ICBM test flight also marked the 1,900th launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base since 1957. ?The Air Force's 576th Flight Test Squadron, 341st Missile Wing and 30th Space Wing all contributed to the test flight, Air Force officials said.