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How Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles Work (Infographic)

Infographic: Here's how missiles send deadly explosive payloads to targets around the world.
Iran's and North Korea's satellite-launching rockets could also be used to send warheads to targets around the world. Here's how it would be done. (Image credit: Karl Tate, contributor)

Missiles are self-guided munitions that travel through the air or outer space to their targets. A ballistic missile travels along a suborbital trajectory. An intercontinental ballistic missile can travel a substantial distance around the Earth to its target.

As opposed to bombs, torpedoes and rockets, missiles are both powered and guided. If unguided, it would be termed a rocket. A bomb is neither powered nor guided. A guided bomb is called a "smart" bomb. If powered and traveling underwater, it is termed a torpedo. [Spectacular Missile Launch Photos]

Missiles are classified according to their range:

Battlefield range (BRBM):less than 124 miles (200 kilometers)
Tactical (TAC): between 93 - 186 miles (150 - 300 km)
Short Range (SRBM): less than 621 miles (1,000 km)
Theatre (TBM): between 186 - 2,175 miles (300 - 3,500 km)
Medium Range (MRBM): between 621 - 2,175 miles (1,000 - 3,500 km)
Intermediate Range (IRBM) or Long Range (LRBM) : between 2,175  - 3,418 miles (3,500 - 5,500 km)
Intercontinental (ICBM): greater than 3,418 miles (5,500 km)

The U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM is a three-stage booster. The payload is a single W62 nuclear warhead with a yield of 170 kilotons. The booster places the warhead on a suborbital trajectory. At its height, the vehicle is outside the Earth’s atmosphere. 

The warhead’s re-entry vehicle falls through the atmosphere to its target. The detonation can be an air burst or ground burst.

A launch vehicle capable of orbiting a world-circling satellite can also be used to send a nuclear warhead to any point on the surface of the Earth.

Early Soviet and American manned orbital missions used modified ICBMs as launch vehicles.

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