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Tsar Bomba – 50 today, and its child that was never born

I never know whether or not ‘normal’ folk are aware of many of the things I dig up ever since I started digging into the history of the Cold War. One day I discover something I have never heard of, mention it casually, and get a “Well, of course we all know about that”, and then find something I think everyone will have heard of, and an attempt to discuss it, or elicit recollections from those who might have been around at the time produces little more than blank stares (and worried looks about the state of my mind).

Although few probably know about it, the Tsar Bomb – King of Bombs – was one of Soviet Russia’s most significant achievements in the nuclear arms race between the two emerging global superpowers. America may have achieved the first working atomic bomb, but Russia was first to take the resulting thermonuclear to the practical limit.

There were various reasons – apart from the obvious arms race – and while America was able to develop technologies that made smaller bombs, Russia failed to make this step. Early on, it also lacked the means of delivering its bombs by missile, or of guiding its missiles with pinpoint accuracy, another achievement the Americans were working on. Yet another problem was the hours it took to fuel Russia’s giant missiles, while America was developing solid fuel missile, which could be held ready to launch in minutes.

America could carry out a first-strike and remove the Russian nuclear threat before it could even be fuelled, let alone launched.

It could also guarantee to hit many targets (missile sites, military bases, cities) with its smaller warheads – and accurate guidance.

Russia had to make bigger nuclear bombs, so that it could guarantee taking out a target merely by getting near it.

The Tsar Bomba was originally a 100 MT (megaton – 1 million ton) weapon. But this was actually too big to be useful, as it would cause terrible fallout, and damage over a massive area.  The design was tuned down to 50 MT, which meant it could be detonated above ground, and the fireball would not lift massive amounts of material, irradiate it, and drop it back on the land.

The bomb was dropped on October 30 1961, from a specially modified Tu-95 strategic bomber. Even at 50 MT, it was so large it had to be carried on the outside of the aircraft (it was over 27 tons, while the 100 MT version would have been around 40 tons, and would have needed a new aircraft to carry it), which was itself sprayed with a protective white coating dropped a powerful hydrogen bomb at a testing range on. The bomb was parachuted from 10,500 metres on to the testing range at Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. The parachute delay of 188 seconds allowed the bomber and a flying laboratory that was collecting data time to leave the area without being engulfed by the fireball. The Tu-95 would have been travelling at a ground speed of about 480 kt (552 mph, 864 kph) towards the ‘safe’ zone (about 45 km from ground zero) and was almost 80 km away when the detonation occurred.

The bomb was detonated at an altitude of 4,200 metres. Expected to yield 51.5 MT, it was later estimated to have yielded between 57 and 58.6 MT. This single explosion was more powerful than all the explosives used by all countries during World War II, and was almost 4,000 time more powerful than the power of all the explosives used by all the countries that

The results were impressive: The fireball had a radius of 2.3 km (1.4 miles) and was visible from a distance of 1,000 km, even through dense clouds. The blast radius, the area in which total destruction was ensured, extended to 13 km (8 miles). The mushroom cloud rose to an altitude of 67 km and had a diameter of 95 km. Ionisation in the atmosphere meant that interference of radio signal lasted for some 40 minutes after the explosion. The thermal energy from the explosion was so powerful that it could cause third degree burns to a human standing 100 km (62 miles) away.

The blast wave circled the planet three times, and on Dikson Island, a Russian island some 800 km from the range, its blast was still able to break windows sound like an artillery barrage.

In the event, the bomb proved to be relatively clean, as up to 97 per cent of its power was created by radiation-free thermonuclear synthesis.

The power of the explosion exceeded the combined power of all explosives used by all countries during WWII. The explosive energy released was almost 3,000 times the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

The most important thing to remember here is that this was intended to be a 100 MT device, and if detonated in its original configuration would have vaporised everything within a 48 km (30 mile) diameter. Everything within a 195 km (120 mile) diameter would have been incinerated in the resultant fireball, and his would have guaranteed the total destruction of a large city such as New York, Paris, or London, together with the total devastation on its outskirts.

Nikita Khrushchev is said to have sanctioned the smaller yield as he did not want to break his own windows.

The following videos are not ‘perfect’, but make a matched pair showing the test and the resultant political fallout. The originals also have a useful facts provided.

Son of the Tsar Bomba

One of the crucial differences between the atomic bomb (as dropped on Hiroshima) and the nuclear, or thermonuclear bomb, is that the former is limited in yield to a few MT, due to physics. The latter, however, has no such technical limit, and provided it is supplied with enough fuel, can be made any size. Basically, it used a fission bomb to trigger a fusion bomb (2-stage), and this can be used to trigger a more powerful bomb (3-stage) and a fourth, and so on. The 50 MT bomb was a 2-stage device, created merely by removing the third stage of the original 100 MT design – the nuclear material was actually replaced by lead.

Following the success of the Tsar, this meant that the question of a massively larger design was considered, and Nikita Khrushchev was faced with the choice of approving or disapproving the design and built of a real ‘Doomsday Machine’.

This would have been a ship which did not carry a thermonuclear device, but was itself a massive thermonuclear device. The 50 MT Tsar Bomba was almost 10 metres long.

The ship would have made a bomb that would have vaporised the ocean – it would have initiated a reaction that used its own contents as fuel, and then as a hydrogen bomb, would have used hydrogen from the surrounding seawater.

More worryingly, it would have sailed the ocean equipped with automated sensors to protect it from attack, and would have been fitted with radiation detectors which would have sensed the fallout from a nuclear conflict. These would have been used to automatically trigger the bomb if such a signal had ever been detected.

Khrushchev could not countenance the existence of such a device, which would certainly have wiped out life on earth had it been activated for any reason – and cancelled all work on the idea.

The myths

I have seen this account rubbished, as are similar claims, but this one made it to a documentary, and is at least credible.

Other variations are less so, such as the suggestion that it was the legendary cobalt bomb, or that the ship was merely a cargo ship packed with hundreds of nuclear bombs, all supposed to be triggered at once.

There is also the Perimeter or Dead Hand fail-deadly Cold War Russian nuclear control system which, according to ‘experts’, may or may not still be available for use today.

Perimeter was supposed to launch Russia’s ICBMs if a nuclear strike was detected using a combination of seismic, light, radioactivity, and overpressure sensors. Fully automated and intended to launch the retaliation even if everyone was dead, it was not activated at all times, but only in times of tension or high alert.

Conflicting and contradictory accounts over the years about the system, its use, location, and operational status have never been resolved, with some writers still claiming it is in place and receiving regular updates to maintain it in service, while others report it has long since become obsolete, and was never really built or deployed because those in command simply did not trust such an automated system.

Given the state of Russia since the Soviet collapse in  1991, the chances of such a system remaining hidden seem low, yet nothing substantive  has been revealed.

Perimeter was most likely a bluff, either deliberate to keep the US on it toes, or accidental when the cancelled suggestion of such an automated doomsday system ‘leaked’.

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October 30, 2011 - Posted by | Cold War | , , , , , ,

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