We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

How does a Sidewinder Missile Work?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
Our promise to you
All The Science is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At All The Science, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The Sidewinder missile is the first truly successful air-to-air missile, and as such it has been widely produced, with more than 110,000 produced so far for over 28 countries, as well as widely imitated. The Sidewinder originates in the United States, and is named after the sidewinder snake, as the trajectory of early versions was reminiscent of the zig-zagging of this species. Similar to snakes, it is also heat-seeking, and can be quite deadly, with more than 270 verified kills since its development in 1956.

The Sidewinder is a supersonic missile, with a speed of Mach 2.5. A typical design, the AIM-9L, has a length of 2.85 m (9.4 ft), a 1-18 km range, depending on weather conditions, and carries a 9.4 kg blast-fragmenting payload. Unit cost is approximately $84,000 US Dollars (USD) as of 2007. It is manufactured by one of three companies: Raytheon Corporation, Ford Aerospace, or Loral Corp. When the Sidewinder was first under development in the early 1950s, the goal was to produce a reliable and effective missile with the “electronic complexity of a table model radio and the mechanical complexity of a washing machine”. This goal was quickly accomplished, and its extremely wide adoption is a testimony to its simplicity and effectiveness.

The Sidewinder uses an infrared (IR) detector based on lead sulfide. When lead sulfide is exposed to heat energy, it reduces the compound’s electrical resistance, an example of photoconductivity. This decrease in resistance can be measured as linked to an action, for instance changing the trajectory of a missile in mid-flight.

In the nose of a Sidewinder, a reflecting mirror points forward, reflecting heat energy from a distant target to the IR detector. The Sidewinder must be roughly pointed in the direction of the target; otherwise it will see nothing and just plow straight ahead. If the target is in its sights, it can measure what angle the heat source is from the direction of its travel. The pitch and yaw of the missile is modified based on the degree of the angle.

The Sidewinder also anticipates the flight path of the target by using a mechanically-based tracking system which “remembers” past measurements and projects them forward, causing the missile to fly a course called proportional pursuit. This allows the missile to “lead” the target, much as a quarterback throws a ball where he thinks a receiver will be by the time the ball arrives, rather than throwing it directly from the start. This is much more efficient than direct pursuit, where the missile simply flies in the current direction of the target.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
Learn more
All The Science, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

All The Science, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.