King of the Bombs
Fifty years ago this weekend, the biggest nuke ever was detonated.
It was called Tsar Bomba, king of the bombs, but it also went by the name “Big Ivan.” With a yield of 58 megatons, the hydrogen bomb detonated on October 30, 1961, over the Soviet Arctic test site at Novaya Zemlya, remains the biggest manmade explosion in history.
The 26-ton bomb was designed by a team that included physicist Andrei Sakharov, later a dissident and Nobel peace prize winner. Not intended as an operational weapon, the Tsar Bomba was meant to demonstrate the feasibility of an even larger (100-megaton) device. Really, though, in the words of authors Viktor Adamsky and Yuri Smirnov, writing in the Fall 1994 issue of the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, “It was a one-time demonstration of force, part of the superpower game of mutual intimidation.”
The eight-meter-long bomb was too large to fit in the bay of a “Bear” strategic bomber, so part of the fuselage was cut away, and half the bomb was left hanging out during the flight. The Tu-95′s pilot was 38-year-old Air Force Major Andrei Durnovtsev, who would be promoted to Lt. Colonel after the mission and named a Hero of the Soviet Union.
And well he should have been. The Tu-95 crew dropped the bomb from a height of 10 kilometers, then skedaddled to a distance of 45 km while the bomb parachuted down to an altitude of 4 km. Then it exploded, unleashing 10 times the total power of all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Adamsky and Smirnov quote a cameraman who observed the blast:
“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.” Another cameraman saw “a powerful white flash over the horizon and after a long period of time he heard a remote, indistinct and heavy blow, as if the Earth has been killed.”
Okay, whoa there. This was a monster explosion, and it’s a good thing for everyone that no nation currently has anything close to a 50-megaton weapon in its arsenal. But before we go congratulating ourselves on how badass we are, consider that the 400-meter asteroid due to pass within the moon’s orbit on November 8, if it were to hit Earth (it won’t), would pack a 1,700-megaton wallop, or 34 times the energy of the so-called King. Even with our most fearsome weapons, nature is still laughing at us.