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Interceptor Missile Designed To Stop Nuclear Attack Successful In First-Of-Its-Kind Test

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The Pentagon conducted a successful trial on Tuesday afternoon of a missile that is designed to stop a nuclear attack. The success of the test was confirmed at around 1:40 p.m. Pacific Time.

While the U.S. had tested interceptor missiles before, this trial was the first of its kind, as it was the first time that the missile was pitted against a simulated intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a long-range missile that could, hypothetically, be launched from North Korea or even Iran at the United States, reports the Verge . While those nations don't currently have missiles that are capable of reaching the U.S., officials have said that Pyongyang may have that capability within five to 10 years .

As reported at the L.A. Times , Tuesday's test included two missile launches. The interceptor missile was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, just 60 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. At nearly the same time, another missile (the simulated ICBM) was lunched thousands of miles away from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The missile from Vandenberg was expected intercept and destroy the other missile in space, likely above the waters near Hawaii (the area was closed to ships during the drill).

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How does it all work? As detailed at the Verge, the process involves a complicated system of advanced machinery. First, satellites in Japan and on U.S. Navy ships would detect the missile launch from the hostile party. Next, control centers in Alaska and Colorado would attempt to track the trajectory of the incoming missile. Once this is accomplished, the order is then given to fire an interceptor missile. This missile would be fired from either Vandenberg or Fort Greely in Alaska (according to the Times, the U.S.'s ground-based midcourse defense system (GMD) has four rocket interceptors in Vandenberg and 32 in Fort Greely).

As for the interceptors themselves, they're 60-foot-tall and come with a three-stage rocket booster that carry a 5-foot-long "kill vehicle." Once in space, the kill vehicle detaches from the rocket and, using infrared sensors to guide its way, attempts to fly into the path of the hostile missile. Once contact is made, the kill vehicle will, theoretically, destroy the warhead without causing a nuclear detonation.

The successful trial comes as a big breath of relief, as the GMD has had a spotty record in past attempts. Since the GMD was made operational in 2004, interceptors have failed six out of nine times to hit a targeted warhead, reports the L.A. Times. The Pentagon says that, in one of those failures, the interceptor made a "glancing" blow but failed to take out the warhead. Officials have pointed out that these tests were conducted in conditions that were designed for success: planners knew in advance the speed and approximate trajectory of the incoming missile.

As reported at NBC 4 , the test was conducted amid a recent barrage of missile tests launched by North Korea, which had done three such tests in the past three weeks. One test involved a short-range ballistic missile that traveled about 250 miles before landing in Japan's "exclusive economic zone" near the coast . The North Koreans have yet to test their own ICBM.

Navy Captain Jeff Davis told NBC 4 that Tuesday's drill was not a direct response to North Korea's recent missile tests. Though he added that North Korea was indeed a reason for the drill. "North Korea has expanded the size and the sophistication of its ballistic missile forces from close-range ballistic missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles," Davis said. "They continue to conduct test launches, as we saw even this weekend, while also using dangerous rhetoric that suggests that they would strike the United States homeland."

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