The King of Nuclear Weapons

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Big Ivan, better known as Tsar Bomba, was 57 Megatons of Soviet might. That’s 1,400 times Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined and ten times the entire combined fire power expended in WWII. In one bomb. One explosion. And, incredibly, that’s only half of what it could have done.

In July 1961, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (and leader of the USSR) decided that he had had enough of the unspoken nuclear testing moratorium that his country, the US, and the UK had been abiding by since 1958. The 22nd Congress of the Communist Party would convene that October, providing the perfect venue to show off the USSR’s military muscle. With the world’s eyes on Moscow, what better way to show the West who was boss than with a “testing spectacular” setting off the largest man-made explosion of all time?

Problem was, they didn’t have a bomb nearly big enough for Khrushchev. Up to that point, the largest hydrogen bomb the Soviets had detonated was the puny 3 MT RDS-37 (albeit the first true hydrogen bomb they built) but Khrushchev demanded something much, much bigger—enough to make America’s 15 MT Castle Bravo test in 1954 wilt. And he wanted it built in time for the Congress. And since telling Nikita Khrushchev “no” simply didn’t happen, a four man development team—Victor Adamskii, Yuri Babaev, Yuri Smirnov, and Yuri Trutnev—designed and simultaneously built the 24-foot long, three-stage thermonuclear device in just 15 weeks.

Officially designated as AN602 hydrogen bomb, the Tsar Bomba used the common three-stage Teller-Ulam design wherein the primary fission reaction is used to compress a secondary mixed fission/fusion fuel layer, which in turn compresses a large, tertiary thermonuclear payload—essentially stringing a pair of hydrogen fission reactions together in order to generate enough energy to instigate fusion in a uranium payload.

Since the project was so rushed, only one such weapon was ever built and even then just barely. At 27 tons, it weighed nearly as much as the Tu-95 that carried it and was so big that crews had to cut off the plane’s bomb-bay doors in order to fit it in. On Oct. 30, 1961, Durnovtsev and his crew took off from an airfield on the Kola Peninsula and headed to the Soviet nuclear test area above the Arctic Circle at Mityushikha Bay, located in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

 

The test project’s scientists painted the Bear bomber and its Tu-16 Badger chase plane white to limit heat damage from the bomb’s thermal pulse. That’s at least what the scientists hoped the paint would do. The bomb also had a parachute to slow its drop, giving both planes time to fly about 30 miles from ground zero before the nuke detonated. This gave Durnovtsev and his comrades a chance to escape.

When the planes reached their destination at the predetermined altitude of 34,000 feet, he ordered the bomb dropped. The chute opened, and the bomb started its three-minute descent to its detonation altitude two-and-a-half miles above the earth. Durnovtsev pushed the throttles to the max.Then the bomb exploded. The five-mile wide fireball reached as high in the sky as the Bear bomber. The shock wave caused the Bear to drop more than half a mile in altitude before Durnovtsev regained control of his aircraft.

The blast broke windows more than 500 miles away. Witnesses saw the flash through heavy cloud cover more than 600 miles from the blast site.

 

Its mushroom cloud boiled up into the atmosphere until it was 45 miles above ground zero — essentially, on the lower boundaries of space. The top of the mushroom cloud spread out until it was 60 miles wide. The nuke’s thermal pulse burned the paint off of both planes.

The resulting fireball had a radius of nearly 10,000 vertical feet and its 210,000 foot tall mushroom cloud reached into the stratosphere. The light generated by the reaction could be seen from over a 1,000 km and the force of its explosion registered a 5.0 on the Richter scale. The shock wave generated air pressures topping 300 PSI, circled the Earth thrice, and cracked windows 900 km away in Norway and Finland. Buildings in the abandoned town of Severny 55 km away were leveled—all of them—and upon later inspection, ground zero was reportedly the texture of a skating rink.

 

As one observer recalled, “the clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards…. Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.”

People in Moscow will have the opportunity to view a life-size replica of the biggest detonated nuclear bomb in history. A copy of the Tsar Bomba will be displayed at a historical exhibition in the heart of the Russian capital.

The exhibition is taking place to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Russian atomic development and will take place from September 1-29 at the Manege Exhibition Hall, just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin and Red Square.

The replica will be delivered to the Russian capital from the city of Sarov, which is around 400km east of Moscow. Sarov is home to the Russian Federal Nuclear Center.

Visitors will also have the chance to see unique documents and items showing the development of nuclear weapons, many of which will be on display to the public for the first time.

3,800 times more powerful than Hiroshima The Tsar Bomba hydrogen bomb is the largest-ever nuclear device to have been detonated.The power of the explosion exceeded the combined power of all explosives used by all countries during WWII. The explosive energy released exceeded 3,800 times the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

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