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In modern language, a missile is a self-propelled system, as opposed to an unguided self-propelled munition, referred to as a rocket (although these too can also be guided). Missiles have four system components: targeting or missile guidance, flight system, engine, and warhead. Missiles come in types adapted for different purposes: surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles (ballistic, cruise, anti-ship, anti-tank, etc.), surface-to-air missiles (and anti-ballistic), air-to-air missiles, and anti-satellite weapons. All known existing missiles are designed to be propelled during powered flight by chemical reactions inside a rocket engine, jet engine, or other type of engine.[citation needed] Non-self-propelled airborne explosive devices are generally referred to as shells and usually have a shorter range than missiles.

In ordinary British-English usage predating guided weapons, a missile is such as objects thrown at players by rowdy spectators at a sporting event.

Missiles may be targeted in a number of ways. The most common method is to use some form of radiation, such as infrared, lasers or radio waves, to guide the missile onto its target. This radiation may emanate from the target (such as the heat of an engine or the radio waves from an enemy radar), it may be provided by the missile itself (such as a radar), or it may be provided by a friendly third party (such as the radar of the launch vehicle/platform, or a laser designator operated by friendly infantry). The first two are often known as fire-and-forget as they need no further support or control from the launch vehicle/platform in order to function. Another method is to use a TV guidance—using either visible light or infrared—in order to see the target. The picture may be used either by a human operator who steers the missile onto its target or by a computer doing much the same job. One of the more bizarre guidance methods instead used a pigeon to steer the missile to its target. Some missiles also have a home-on-jam capability to guide itself to a radar-emitting source.

Many missiles use a combination of two or more of the above methods to improve accuracy and the chances of a successful engagement.

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