A new documentary by Russia’s state atomic agency offers newly declassified footage of the biggest thermonuclear bomb of all time. “Tsar Bomba,” which the Soviet Union tested in 1961, was so powerful that people saw the flash from up to 630 miles away.
The Soviets only tested the bomb once, a symbol of their technology and military power before an international treaty prohibited further tests. Although tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still exist, none is even remotely as powerful as the great and terrible Tsar Bomba. Here's the documentary:
In July 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev ordered the development of a 100-megaton nuclear weapon. Engineers had mere weeks to fabricate the bomb, officially named RDS-220, and in the end, they built a device with a yield of only 50 megatons. But that was still enough to easily make it the most powerful thermonuclear device ever tested, far eclipsing America’s Castle Bravo test. Castle Bravo, which the U.S. detonated in the Pacific in 1954, exploded with the force of 15 megatons.
The Soviet Union tested Tsar Bomba over Novaya Zemlya island, north of the Arctic Circle, in October 1961. The Soviets dropped the 27-ton, 26-foot-long bomb from a Tu-95 “Bear” bomber, and the weapon was so large, it wouldn't fit in the aircraft bomb bay. The parachute that released the bomb weighed a ton on its own, and the shockwave from the airburst explosion was so intense, the bomber tumbled 3,000 feet in altitude before righting itself.
It's difficult to truly get across how powerful RDS-220 was. The mushroom cloud reached an altitude of 210,000 feet, and people observed the flash through bad weather at 621 miles. An observer felt heat from the explosion at a distance of 168 miles, and the bomb was capable of inflicting third-degree burns at 62 miles. After the explosion, one observer described Ground Zero as "leveled, swept, and licked so that it looks like a skating rink".
Fortunately, nobody was killed in the test, which was held in one of the most remote regions of the Soviet Union. Had the target been a major American city, the story would have been very different: According to NUKEMAP, if Tsar Bomba fell on Washington, D.C., it would've killed 2.2 million people and spread dangerous levels of radioactivity as far away as Pennsylvania.
The 1963 Nuclear Ban-Test Treaty prohibited atmospheric nuclear explosions, which means we never saw a weapon as powerful as Tsar Bomba tested again. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons have gradually come down in explosive yield over the past 60 years, as delivery systems like land- and sea-launched missiles have become more accurate.
In 2019, a United Nations expert said the risk of nuclear war was at its highest since World War II. The world may never see another Tsar Bomba, but if a nuclear war does break out, that might not matter.
Source: Popular Mechcanics