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Air Force Launches Suborbital Ballistic Missile In Weapons Test

An unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile blasted off early Friday (Sept. 17) in the latest successful weapons test by the U.S. Air Force.
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An unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile blasted off early Friday (Sept. 17) in the latest successful weapons test by the U.S. Air Force.

The Minuteman 3 missile launched from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, sending a single re-entry test vehicle into suborbital space on a flight that soared some 5,300 miles (8,530 km) across the Pacific Ocean. The test vehicle hit a pre-determined target about 200 miles (322 km) southwest of Guam, the Air Force said in a statement.

Liftoff occurred at 3:03 a.m. local time (6:03 a.m. EDT, 1003 GMT) from Launch Facility-09 at the Vandenberg base. A long-exposure photo of the launch showed the missile leave an arc of light across the predawn western sky. [ Photo of the Air Force missile launch.]

A team of ICBM analysts are studying the Minuteman 3 missile launch as part of an ongoing evaluation on the readiness of the U.S. military's ICBM arsenal, Air Force officials said. That team includes experts from the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, they added.

"The launch process requires tremendous teamwork and involves months of preparation," said USAF Col. David Bliesner, 576th Flight Test Squadron commander, in a statement. "The data gained from these launches allows us to maintain a high readiness capability and ensures operational effectiveness of the most powerful weapons in the nation's arsenal."

Friday's launch test was the latest in a several trials this year for the U.S. military's arsenal of Minuteman 3 missiles.

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.

The weapons can reach altitudes 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 flight trajectories.

Minuteman 3 ICBMs were first produced in June 1970, though production stopped in December 1978, according to an Air Force fact sheet. They 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 Minuteman weapon 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 Air Force has said. The first Minuteman 1 missiles were deployed in the late 1960s. The missiles are housed in hardened underground silos and watched over 24 hours a day by launch crews consisting of two officers per shift.

Today, the weapon system arsenal consists of about 450 active Minuteman 3 missiles located at bases in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, according to the Air Force.