On October 31st, 1961, the Soviet Union activated the most physically powerful device ever made by man: a gigantic thermonuclear bomb known as the “Tsar Bomba”, or King Bomb in Russian. It was by far the most powerful nuclear weapon ever designed and tested, and resulted in the largest artificial explosion in human history.
The bomb was conceived and designed during a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were building and testing high-yield nuclear weapons in the late 1950’s. Since the first atomic bombs were used to end WWII, both countries had experimented with new designs which became increasingly more powerful to the point that standard designs were vastly more destructive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The latest and most deadly of these were called thermonuclear bombs because they used the immense heat from an initial nuclear fission blast (splitting of atoms) to compress a hydrogen core until nuclear fusion occurred (joining of atoms) – the latter of which is the same process used by stars to release energy.
The Soviet motivation for creating this bomb was partly scientific, partly military, and partly political; first, Russian scientists wanted to test the effects of such a high-yield design, the likes of which had never been seen before; second, it was strategically advantageous to be able to create as large as an explosion as possible in case a bomber missed their intended target; and third, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev basically wanted to scare the shit out of America. All three goals were easily achieved in a terrifying fashion.
Originally, the bomb was designed to create an explosion equivalent to 100 megatons, or 100 million tons, of TNT. To put this into perspective, the Hiroshima bomb was only as powerful as 13,000 tons of TNT. The largest bomb ever detonated by the United States was 15 megatons, and even that was caused by an accident – the design was only intended to produce about 5 megatons. Ultimately, the design of the Tsar Bomba was scaled down to 50 megatons because of fears about the amount of nuclear fallout that would be produced by a larger bomb.
When it was time to test the bomb, even the largest Soviet bomber had to be modified to carry it…because it weighed 27 tons. The bomb was fitted with a parachute that itself weighed nearly 1,800 pounds and was intended to give the bomber and observer plane time to fly almost 30 miles away from ground zero before detonation. Needless to say, the detonation was nothing short of staggering.
The Tsar Bomba detonated 2.5 miles above the Novaya Zemlaya archipelago, which is north of Russia in the Arctic Sea and far above the Arctic Circle (map and satellite images of the crater here). The fireball produced by the bomb was 5 miles in diameter, compared to the 1,200 foot fireball of the Hiroshima bomb. The mushroom cloud was 40 miles high, about two-thirds of the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere. All buildings in the village of Severny, located 34 miles from ground zero, were completely destroyed. Many other buildings had severe damage even at over 100 miles away from the blast site. One test participant wearing dark goggles and standing 170 miles away from the explosion said he could see the flash and feel the heat blast caused by the detonation. In fact, the heat could have caused third degree burns even from over 60 miles away. For perspective, the below picture shows the radius of the fireball and the complete destruction zone superimposed over a map of Paris.
The shock wave was so powerful that it broke windows in Finland and Norway over 500 miles away. It was even measurable on its third trip around the Earth. Had the detonation occurred underground, it would likely have caused an earthquake in the magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter scale. Perhaps most amazing, though, is the fact that the explosion was larger than the estimated combined explosions of every conventional bomb and artillery shell used in WWII.
In the after analysis, the bomb was determined to have produced a yield of about 57 megatons of TNT. It was also the “cleanest” nuke ever created with over 97% of the energy released coming from fusion reaction as opposed to the fission reaction which produces most of the deadly radioactive fallout. In the end, it was determined that the sheer size of the bomb made it impractical; it was too large for mass deployment on modified bombers, and there was no missile at the time that was big enough to launch it. The Tsar Bomba helped mark the end of the high-yield bomb as a practical weapon and the shift towards the multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV), where as many as a dozen small bombs were put on the tip of a missile and dropped on different parts of a city (illustrated below). Still, it is an amazing – and frightening – testament to the power of harnessing science, whether it be for the best of intentions or for the very worst.