What is an intercontinental ballistic missile?

This image made from video of a news bulletin aired by North Korea’s KRT on Tuesday, July 4, 2017, shows what was said to be the preparation of the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, ICBM, in North Korea’s northwest. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this photo. North Korea claimed to have tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in a launch Tuesday, a potential game-changing development in its push to militarily challenge Washington — but a declaration that conflicts with earlier South Korean and U.S. assessments that it had an intermediate range. (KRT via AP Video)

The United States has confirmed that North Korea has test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile. The weapons are possessed by only a handful of countries, including the U.S., Russia and China.

ICBMs are missiles that can travel thousands of kilometers (miles) from one continent to another. Many analysts define an ICBM has having a range in excess of 5,500 kilometers (3,420 miles).

The Hwasong-14 missile that North Korea launched Tuesday was fired at a highly lofted angle to avoid neighboring countries. It flew as high as 2,802 kilometers (1,741 miles) before splashing down in the ocean about 933 kilometers (579 miles) from the launch site, North Korea said.

If fired at a normal trajectory, one U.S. scientist said the missile could have a possible maximum range of 6,700 kilometers (4,160 miles), which could put Alaska in its range. Many South Korean experts estimate the missile’s maximum range at 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles), putting Hawaii in its striking distance. To cover anywhere in the United States, North Korea would need a longer range.

Despite Tuesday’s test flight, many experts believe North Korea doesn’t yet have a functioning ICBM because it still needs to develop the technology to manufacture miniaturized nuclear warheads to mount on the missiles. It’s also unclear whether North Korea has developed a successful re-entry vehicle, something that’s needed to return a warhead to the atmosphere from space so it can hit its intended target.

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