RDS-220 / “Big Ivan” (TSAR BOMBA) Test gallery

After a period of almost 3 years, in which no atomic tests were carried out due to a kind of moratorium between the USRR, the United Kingdom and the USA, the Soviet Union decided to turn its policy around with a spectacular test. Although no tests had been carried out in almost 3 years, the developments had not stopped, but it was in July 1961, when it was decided to resume the tests. The device had the official designation of “product 602” but its designers referred to it as “Big Ivan”, and in the West it has come to be known as “Tsar Bomba” and “Kuzka’s mother”. Other designations such as RDS-37 or PH202 (product 202) are erroneous, although the RDS-220 designation is also supported.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). The scientific team in charge of the test was led by Igor Kurchatov and its main components were Andrei Sakharov, Victor Adamskii, Yuri Babaev, Yuri Smirnov, and Yuri Trutnev. The studies and design of the super-bomb are carried out in secret laboratories located in the Urals and designated as Arzamas-16. Despite claiming that the bomb was designed, manufactured and launched in just 16 weeks, the Tsar bomb is actually the result of 5 years of work. All started in March 1956 with the development of a super-powerful bomb called “product 202”, derived from the 1.6 Mt RDS-37 hydrogen bomb. Work was carried out on “product 202”, later called RDS-202, until July 1958, when it was decided not to test the bomb and to disassemble certain elements for experiments. The RDS-202 was a thermonuclear bomb designed with a power of 38 megatons, although its real yield was estimated in 15 megatons.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). After RD-202 bomb, the design of another more powerful bomb began, called “product 602”, which had to reach a yirld of 100 megatons. Despite certain doubts about experimentation with devices of such destructive power, Nikita Khrushchev supported the development and in July 1961 the test was authorized. To advance the work, many of the exact mathematical calculations necessary for a test of this kind were eliminated and based only on approximations, which caused modifications to be necessary even during the final assembly of the device. In addition, some components of the RDS-202 bomb were used, such as the casing and certain internal systems. These actions made it possible to save time and speed up the test.
The Tsar Bomba was designed as a three-stage thermonuclear device with a power of about 100 megatons. The first stage was composed of the fission trigger. The second stage was made up of two small thermonuclear charges that caused a controlled explosion of 1.6 megatons that made the third stage implode, where the main charge was located, which was responsible for generating the fission of uranium 238. Finally, the test bomb was a two-stage device, in which both the second and third stages changed the uranium-238 fusion tamper for lead tampers to eliminate the rapid fission caused by uranium-238 and reduce the fallout by 97%. The power was also reduced by 50% and paradoxically, despite being the most powerful atomic bomb in history, it was also the cleanest.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). “Big Ivan” was endowed with all the technological advances of the time. The implosion of the main thermonuclear stage occurred from two opposite sides and the second stage was formed by two fusion charges located one at the front and one at the rear of the bomb. The explosion of both charges had to occur with a difference of no more than 100 nanoseconds, so the sequencing unit had to be modified. The spectacular bomb ended up having a weight of about 27 tons, a length of 8 meters and a diameter of 2.10 meters. A gigantic 1,600 m2 parachute also had to be made to give the launch aircraft time enough to get far away from the explosion.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). The huge weight and dimensions of the Tsar Bomba was a problem when choosing the launch aircraft. In fact, only the Tupolev Tu-95N “Bear A” was capable of taking on this mission. Despite its large cargo capacity, the aircraft had to be extensively modified. The suspension, the cargo bay, the engines and the bomb release system had to be redesigned. Some fuel tanks and cargo bay doors had to be removed and a special system had to be installed to lift the bomb into its transport position. The release mechanism was changed by one in which the 3 locks were released in a synchronized way by means of an electro-automatic system.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). The aircraft modified for this mission was designated as Tu-95V, and passed all tests, including dropping a mock-up of the Tsar Bomba without any complications. In addition to this aircraft, a Tu-16A “Badger” was prepared as a flying laboratory to take test measurements. The Tu-16A carried measuring equipment, calorimeters, oscilloscopes, shock wave meters, range finders and external cameras. Shortly before the mission, both aircraft were completely painted, including the propellers on the Tu-95V, with a special light radiation protective paint.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). The test was carried out from three main facilities. An airfield near Olya was the site from which the bomber responsible for the launch took off. The launch area was at State Test Site No. 6 of the USSR Ministry of Defense, located on Novaya Zemlya Island. Finally, 90 km from the test site was the D-8 base, from where all the equipment installed in the test site was automatically radio controlled from an underground bunker. There was installed a mechanical computer that controlled the sequence of events. Many other secondary control and observation centers were involved in the test, as well as several radars that maintained contact with the bomber at all times.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). A communications center with radiotelegraph equipment was installed at the Olya airfield. 260 km from the test site, in Belushya Bay, the HQ, scientific departments, laboratories and some support centers were installed. Likewise, an underground joint coordination center was installed, equipped with radiotelegraph equipment to maintain continuous communication in both directions between the HQ, the airfield and the bomber. A naval logistics support group was deployed in the bay. Communication between D-8 base and the test site was carried out by means of warships.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). Due to the importance of the test, special emphasis was placed on recording and analyzing the results. Some 20 km away from ground zero, the equipment for measuring and recording the effects of the explosion was installed on protective metal structures. Specific equipment was installed 2 km from the same area to record the development of the explosion. This equipment consisted of oscilloscopes that recorded the neutron multiplication factor as well as the intervals between the automatic explosions of the explosive charges that generated the chain reaction.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). On October 30, 1961, the Tu-95V took off from the Olya aerodrome towards Novaya Zemlya test site, and after 2 hours of flight, at exactly 08:30:19 a.m. (Moscow time), dropped the bomb from 10,500 meters high. After falling for 188 seconds, the bomb exploded 4,000 meters above the ground at 08:33:27 a.m., generating the largest man-made explosion to date. When the bomb exploded, the Tu-95V was about 40 km away and the Tu-16A about 54 km away, so they were not damaged. However, the shock wave reached the Tu-95V at 115 km and the Tu-16A at about 200 km, causing the Tu-95V to descend 1,000 meters, although fortunately the bomber recovered its height and reached the base without problems.
tsar explosion10
(image-capture obtained from the official film). The huge explosion instantly generated a 20 km diameter fireball that could be seen from 250 km away. Then, the classic “nuclear mushroom” begins to rise, which after 40 seconds reaches a height of 30 km and finally reaches 67 km. The “mushroom” could be seen from 800 km distance and took on a conspicuous two-tiered hat shape, with the upper level reaching about 90 km in diameter and the lower level about 70 km. The “trunk” of the nuclear mushroom grew up to 28 km wide.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). The data regarding the result of the explosion are overwhelming. The explosion could be seen 1,000 km away and shattered windows in buildings some 900 km away. The pressure generated by the explosion at ground zero was 300 psi, 6 times more than that generated by the Hiroshima bomb, and the thermal pulse could be felt some 270 km away. The shock wave in the air could be seen from 700 km away and the noise of the explosion sounded as if “the Earth was being killed”, according to an observer. Due to the interference created by the explosion, contact with the Tu-95V and Tu-16A was lost for 40 minutes and the blast wave generated by the explosion circled the earth 3 times. As an example of its power, suffice it to say that it was similar to the drop of 3,800 “Little Boy” type bombs like those dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). The damage above ground zero was immense, although logically, it was an uninhabited area. The surface of the island was flattened into a parking lot for dozens of kilometers around, and the snow melted instantly, leaving everything like a gigantic wasteland. In the Severny settlement, 55 km from the blast, all buildings were flattened, and in towns several hundred kilometers away, wooden houses were destroyed and brick and stone houses damaged. It is estimated that the explosion generated an earthquake of 5.25 degrees on the Richter scale. The total destruction covered up to 25 km around ground zero and the explosion could cause third degree burns to people located more than 100 km away.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). Two hours after the explosion, several teams are sent to the area to measure the level of radioactive contamination, verifying that in a radius of 3 km, contamination is not greater than 1 milliroentgen/hour. This indicates a very low level of contamination that does not physically affect any of the test participants. Despite the destructive power of Tsar Bomba, it was never thought to develop weapons of such power, it was an experiment that was intended to give “a wake-up call” to the United States.
(image-capture obtained from the official film). Several studies carried out after the explosion concluded that the military value of a device of this power was practically null, since there were no clear targets for such a powerful bomb, except entire cities. Likewise, the launch of such powerful bomb in a Central European country would have inevitably affected a good number of Warsaw Pact countries, something totally counterproductive. Furthermore, bombers capable of delivering this super-bomb were too slow to reach targets in the United States without being detected and could have been easily shot down by American interceptors.

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