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Union University Department of Physics

The Science Guys

Science Guys > June 2003

June 2003

What was the biggest bomb ever created?

Thermonuclear fusion devices are the most powerful bombs and can be made in practically any size just by adding more ’fuel’. Originally, targeting was not that accurate. Accordingly, there was a race for bigger and bigger bombs because the only way to guarantee a hit was to have a very large footprint or blast area. Therefore, nuclear bombs that convert matter into pure energy with an explosive power of up to 100 million tons (100 megatons) of TNT were designed.

The largest bomb ever tested was detonated on Oct 30, 1961 at 11:32 AM on Novaya Zemlya Island in the Arctic Circle. Russia set off a 50 megaton device to test the design for a 100 megaton possibility. Descriptions of this event are astonishing. The bomb was dropped by parachute from a plane flying at nearly 40000 ft. The parachutes had to be specially made because the bomb weighted over 20 tons. The parachute gave the plane time to get away from the blast area. Even then, the plane had been painted white to reflect the flash and heat of the bomb.

When detonated at 4000 m high, the flash of light could be seen over 600 miles away even though it was a cloudy day. The whole sky glowed an eerie orange for hundreds of miles. A mushroom cloud rose 38 miles into the sky and the cloud was swept around the earth three times before the dust particles finally settled.

Reports from on-site personnel said they could feel the heat pulse 150 miles away. All radio communication for hundreds of miles was interrupted for over an hour. When scientists finally examined the island, they found the ground as clean and level as a skating rink. All snow and all features were completely gone. This was truly an awesome device. This one bomb was 10 times more powerful than all the explosives used in World War II including the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. And this device was just a test for an even bigger bomb. However, scientists realized that such a bomb was not practical and some even speculated it might destroy the whole world.

At that time, countries used the ’bigness’ of bombs to intimidate other nations, and this bomb did stun the world. Many myths and legends about the event continue to this day. It was unlike anything the world had ever seen before. After this bomb was exploded, Khrushchev said, "let this device hang over the heads of the capitalists like the sword of Damocles" and even reported that Russia had a 100 megatons weapon.

Today’s sophisticated targeting technologies have rendered the gigantic weapons of the 1960’s obsolete. Several smaller nuclear devices of a few megatons are preferable to a large device. Hopefully the world will never again see a nuclear explosion.