Russia declassifies footage of 'Tsar Bomba' — the most powerful nuclear bomb in history

The Tsar Bomba explodes over the Russian Arctic
The Tsar Bomba explodes over the Russian Arctic (Image credit: Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation)

In October 1961, the Soviet Union dropped the most powerful nuclear bomb in history over a remote island north of the Arctic Circle.

Though the bomb detonated nearly 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) above ground, the resulting shockwave stripped the island as bare and flat as a skating rink. Onlookers saw the flash more than 600 miles (965 km) away, and felt its incredible heat within 160 miles (250 km) of Ground Zero. The bomb's gargantuan mushroom cloud climbed to just below the edge of space.

This was RDS-220 — also known as the Tsar Bomba. Nearly 60 years after the bomb's record-shattering detonation, no single explosive device has come close to matching its destructive power. Last week, Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation (Russia's state atomic agency) released 40 minutes of previously classified footage, showing the bomb's journey from manufactor to mushroom cloud. Now, you can watch it all on YouTube. (The countdown to detonation begins at 22:20).

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Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev personally commissioned the construction of the Tsar Bomba in July 1961, Popular Mechanics reported. While Krushchev wanted a 100-megaton nuclear weapon, engineers ultimately presented him with a 50-megaton version — equivalent to 50 million tons (45 million metric tons) of TNT detonated at once. Even with half of the premier's requested payload, the bomb was unfathomably powerful. The bomb was thousands of times stronger than the nukes detonated by the United States over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and dwarfed the detonation of Castle Bravo — the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested by the United States — which yielded just 15 megatons (13 million metric tons).

As the new footage shows, the Tsar Bomba was enormous, weighing 27 tons (24 metric tons) and measuring about as long as a double-decker bus. An aerial bomber carried the massive weapon high over the Novaya Zemlya islands in the Russian Arctic, then dropped it via parachute before clearing the area. The explosion was so powerful that it actually knocked the aircraft out of the sky, causing the plane to plummet 3,000 feet (900 m) before the pilot could right it, according to Popular Mechanics.

Thankfully, no human casualties have been attributed to the Tsar Bomba detonation, and no bomb matching its power was ever tested again. In 1963, the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United Kingdom signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited airborne nuclear weapons tests.

Since then, atomic tests have carried on underground as nations continue to stockpile nuclear weapons, occasionally changing the geography of the Earth around them. One 2018 nuclear test conducted in North Korea caused an entire mountain to collapse over the test facility — a reminder, perhaps, that the world hardly needs another Tsar Bomba in order to wreak devastating nuclear damage.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest,, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.

  • Ashtin
    Why is it alsays the russians they need to stop
  • jbfarley
    good lord, read the articles thoroughly before commenting. you're saying they need to stop something that they did over 50 years ago, sport
  • Frank Sterle Jr.
    Unlike Ronald Reagan's 1980s Strategic defence initiative, a.k.a. Star Wars, the anti-missile defence shield, into which Canada currently seems to be placing some serious stock, is quite realistic and technologically sound. In fact, over two decades ago the tech had impressively (at least to me) proved itself to be on solid ground, though I feel that it could’ve already been by now solidly established as a fully functional defense shield.
    One need only note the success of the Patriot batteries stationed around Israel during Desert Storm.
    If I recall correctly, the Patriot missiles had been barely developed with no practical testing, thus they had to be field tested during actual warfare. Only one scud made it through the defence shield intact and another after being severely damaged, though both did not result in death, injury nor even notable damage. Had the system been shy of competent, let alone a failure, there’s no reason to believe that the nuclear-armed nation of Israel was bluffing when it promised to retaliate against Iraq if the Patriots failed to deliver and Israeli casualties were incurred.
    Unfortunately, whatever small degree to which the U.S. has thus far developed its shield technology in actual hardware would only serve to intercept ballistic missiles targeting nations that are U.S. friendly or their protection is in U.S. interests.
    That kind of act could motivate some nations—most worrisome being rogue nations such as the bizarre-behaviour North Korea via their Great Leader—to find other means to compensate for their new great disadvantage. For example, they could expand their nuclear arsenal while collaborating with their own friendly nations (however few) to achieve the means to overwhelm the biased anti-missile shield.
    A good means of avoiding such dreary anti-productive measures-thus-counter-measures would be to ensure all interested ‘sides’ that the anti-missile defence shield would be independently programmed to intercept all airborne projectiles regardless of their origin. The system would monitor the planet’s air space and launch anti-missile defensive measures, equipped with latest computer-systems-hacking fail-safe technology.
    The naysayers of such a universal defence shield should suggest other plausible ways through which to avoid nuclear-exchange devastation anywhere, let alone everywhere. As for those who say such a shield would be too expensive—just how much is Earth and humanity worth?
  • Chem721
    Frank Sterle Jr. said:
    The naysayers of such a universal defence shield should suggest other plausible ways through which to avoid nuclear-exchange devastation anywhere, let alone everywhere.

    It should be pointed out that many experts in the field of strategic nuclear weapons, and their potential use, will describe an effective ABM system as more of a destabilizing effort than an applicable one. It is seen by most adversaries as a true defense, and not simply as a deterrent, providing the potential for a first strike capability. One must think with their heads, not ours, to consider their responses to such a deployment.

    As the tech war heats up, it would be prudent to negotiate a new ABM treaty banning interception of long-range delivery systems dedicated to nuclear warheads. The ability to overcome them with decoys, or increasing the number of missiles renders their effectiveness questionable in real terms, but perhaps not to those who might push the buttons. If your enemy thinks they are vulnerable, they will take additional measures to counteract such a threat and do something about it. Doubtless the Russians and Chinese, with their expertise in space technology, would not have a problem counteracting such interception systems, using the above methods.

    North Korea, on the other hand, is in no position to ramp up their threat capability. Kim et al. surely must know that if they launched a preemptive attack on us, or any of our allies, we would be bouncing their rubble a dozen times over, just to be sure. Kim's greatest threat seems to be his rhetoric, not his nuclear stockpile. He certainly cannot be considering vaporization as a result of any future "defense" plans.