How Do Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles Work?

Nov 30, 2017

By Laura Geggel

How do intercontinental ballistic missiles — including the one North Korea launched Tuesday (Nov. 28) that flew more than 10 times higher than the International Space Station — work?

The answer depends on the type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but most of these rockets launch from a device on the ground, travel into outer space and finally re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, plummeting rapidly until they hit their target.

As of now, no country has fired an ICBM as an act of war against another country, although some countries have tested these missiles in practice exercises, said Philip Coyle, a senior science adviser with The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C. But even though North Korea’s tests are also exercises, the provocative nature of these tests has many world leaders on edge, according to news reports.

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7 comments on “How Do Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles Work?

  • @OP – As of now, no country has fired an ICBM as an act of war against another country,
    although some countries have tested these missiles in practice exercises,
    said Philip Coyle, a senior science adviser with The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation,
    a nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C.

    This however, is far from the whole picture!
    Large numbers of surplus and obsolete ICBMs, have been sold and recycled as commercial satellite launchers!
    On Friday, the U.S. Air Force launched a small, 310-lb. satellite from Cape Canaveral. The satellite’s ride? A missile that used to carry 200 times the explosive yield of the Hiroshima bomb— but now has found a second, more peaceful life.

    The Minotaur IV, the rocket that sent the ORS-5 SensorSat into geosynchronous orbit, is no ordinary space rocket. Developed by Orbital ATK, the Minotaur IV and V rockets are actually decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles.
    Removed from service in the mid-2000s because of the START II arms control treaty, Peacekeeper ICBMs were designed to strike missile silos and other hardened targets in the Soviet Union.
    Each missile carried ten W-87 thermonuclear warheads, each with a yield of 300 kilotons.

    Dnepr (rocket)
    The Dnepr is based on the R-36MUTTH Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – called the SS-18 Satan by NATO – designed in the 1970s by the Yuzhnoe Design Bureau in Dnipro, Ukraine, which was then a part of the USSR.

    The Dnepr control system was developed and produced by the JSC “Khartron”, Kharkiv. The Dnepr is a three-stage rocket using storable hypergolic liquid propellants. The launch vehicles used for satellite launches have been withdrawn from ballistic missile service with the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces and stored for commercial use. A group of a total of 150 ICBMs were allowed under certain geopolitical disarmament protocols to be converted for use, and can be launched through 2020.

    Space companies feud over what to do with rockets in ICBM stockpile, Washington Post

    “Orbital ATK wants to unearth the dormant missiles and repurpose them to launch commercial satellites into orbit. Russia has released its Soviet-era ICBMs into the commercial market, the company argues, so the Pentagon should be allowed to sell its unused ICBMs as well. But to do that, Congress would have to ease a 20-year-old restriction that prohibits the sale of the missile motors for commercial use.

    Subcommittee Examines Commercial Satellite Industry, Policy Challenges, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

    “Those in favor of allowing excess ICBMs to be used for commercial launch services argue that many U.S. small satellites have launched on Russian DNEPR vehicles, derived from Russian ICBMs, and that by modifying existing U.S. policy, U.S. launch services could compete with Russia and bring this business back to America.

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  • Oh man, that has like blown my mind dude. So like they go up into space yeah, then they come back down from space ok, like onto another continent which is where the inter-continental bit comes from yeah, and it’s on a ballistic trajectory and they’re missiles? Now you spell it all out for me it looks so simple and I wonder how I managed to miss it all before.

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  • Arkrid Sandwich #3
    Nov 30, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    ICBMs are not new technology (although some refined versions may be).

    Fifty years ago this week, a modified Redstone missile topped with a Mercury capsule called Freedom 7 launched the first American, Alan Shepard, into space.
    While Freedom 7 did not enter orbit like Yuri Gagarin had done on the first Vostok flight the previous month, it was this country’s first tentative step into the arena of manned spaceflight.

    By this point in time, the Redstone missile was well known to the American public.
    In addition to being the launch vehicle for the first Mercury suborbital test flights, it also served as the launch vehicle for America’s first Explorer satellites only three years earlier.
    Outside of the limelight of Space Age achievements, the Redstone also served as a powerful weapon on the frontlines of the Cold War.

    So modified intercontinental missiles have been used in space launches, (with space launches used as cover for missile weapons technology developments), since the 1940s and 1950s.

    As the war in Korea dragged on, the program received the highest “1A” priority and was redirected in the hopes of employing it in that conflict.
    In order to speed development and make it a mobile field weapon, the nominal range was reduced to 320 kilometers (200 miles) and it was decided to use a smaller engine built by North American Aviation (later, by their Rocketdyne division) based on the one used by the Navaho cruise missile’s rocket booster.
    On April 8, 1952, this new tactical missile was officially named Redstone after the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where Dr. von Braun and his team had moved in 1950.

    The idea of a US directed war in Korea and the use of missiles, is NOT a new concept either!

    The single-stage Redstone with its warhead attached was originally 19.2 meters (63 feet) long and 1.78 meters (70 inches) in diameter. Later production models had a length of 21.0 meters (69 feet) and a weighed as much as 28,000 kilograms (62,000 pounds) at launch depending on its payload.

    I made a scale model of a Redstone Rocket in 1966, for the purpose of teaching children the concept of 3 stages to orbit (as in the OP) – topped by a Mercury Capsule (further topped with its emergency escape tower as in the picture on the link) and with a heat shield, for re-entry through the atmosphere between the capsule and its small rocket engine pack.

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  • rogeroney #5
    Dec 2, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    @link – Additionally, many types of submunitions fail to properly detonate at a higher rate than other weapons, resulting in bomblet “duds” that can explode even years later and kill civilians.

    Military bomb disposal technicians have estimated that cluster munitions have a dud rate as high as about 20 percent.

    Apparently the development of more reliable bomblets has not happened, so they are just muddling along with the dangerous unreliable ones – regardless of the on-going risks to non-combatants! (and of course making hypocritical propaganda, about other “evil” people’s “weapons of mass destruction”!)

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  • I see from the news, that the nutter squad are rehearsing air-strikes, utter destruction, and an invasion of North Korea from South Korea, a US airbase, and a fleet with three aircraft carriers!

    What better method of motivation could be devised to encourage North Korea to pre-emptively nuke the US base and the fleet with missile strikes, in self defence?

    I think it was spelt out last April!

    North Korea ‘ready to sink’ US aircraft carrier Vinson – 23 April 2017

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