Thursday, April 7, 2011

Black Hole Propelled Starship

A black hole is essentially an object that is so dense and compact that within a sufficiently close distance from it, its immense gravitational pull does not let even light to escape. This critical distance is the event horizon of the black hole and anything which crosses the event horizon, including light, can never escape. If the entire Earth is crushed to form a black hole, its event horizon will have a diameter of only 18 millimeters! In this article, I am going to describe the possibility of using micro black holes as a means of propulsion for interstellar space travel and also compare it with other forms of propulsion. So far, all black holes known range from monstrous supermassive black holes in the cores of galaxies to stellar mass black holes, spanning in mass from billions of times the mass of the Sun to a few times the mass of the Sun respectively. In this article, the black holes described are micro black holes that are on the order of only a hundred thousand metric tons or so.

In the 1970s, the physicist Stephen Hawking theorized that black holes can emit radiation due to quantum effects and this phenomenon became known as Hawking radiation. In the absence of any mass accretion, an isolated black hole will gradually lose mass via the emission of Hawking radiation until the entire black hole eventually disappears. The power emitted by a black hole in the form of Hawking radiation increases as the mass of the black hole decreases. Therefore, as a black hole shrinks in mass, it will emit Hawking radiation at an ever increasing rate until it eventually disappears in an incredible burst of energy. A black hole with a mass of a billion metric tons will take almost 3 trillion years to complete decay via the emission of Hawking radiation even though it is slightly smaller than the size of the nucleus of an oxygen atom.

The Alpha Centauri star system is located 4.37 light years away and it is among the nearest stars. Traveling at a velocity of say 100 kilometers per second, which is already much faster than the fastest speed attained by any spacecraft to date, it will take over 13000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. Therefore, to get to the stars within a reasonable amount of time, a spacecraft will have to be accelerated up to a significant fraction of the speed of light and an entirely new means of propulsion will be required for such a feat.

As a black hole decays through the emission of Hawking radiation, almost all of the mass of the black hole is directly converted into energy and the only other known process with such a good mass to energy conversion efficiency is the annihilation of matter with antimatter. A 100 percent efficient conversion of mass to energy produces about 90 thousand trillion joules of energy for every kilogram of mass. Today’s best chemical propulsion methods can only get up to a few million joules per kilogram of fuel. Even nuclear fission and nuclear fusion pale in comparison as less than one percent of the mass of the fissile or fusion material is converted into energy. Hence, the almost perfect mass to energy conversion efficiency from the emission of Hawking radiation by decaying micro black holes can make them a viable means of propulsion for interstellar space travel.

A micro black hole with a mass of 100 thousand metric tons or so is able to produce thousands of times more power in the form of Hawking radiation than the average total power consumption by the entire human world in 2008. Such a micro black hole can be use to accelerate a spaceship to the incredibly huge velocities required for interstellar space travel by directing the high energy radiation from the decaying black hole to generate thrust. Because a black hole of this mass has a lifespan of only a few months, matter is continuously required to feed the black hole to sustain it. In fact, any form of matter including the extremely tenuous gases making up the interstellar medium between the stars can be use to feed and sustain the black hole.

To put the numbers into perspective, a micro black hole with a mass of 404 thousand metric tons will have a net power output of 370 petawatts from its emission of Hawking radiation and this is about 25000 times more power than the average total power consumption by the entire human world in 2008! If the total power output of this black hole is sustained for one year to accelerate a 1 million metric ton spaceship which also includes the mass of the black hole itself, the spaceship will acquire a final velocity of almost half the speed of light or 150 thousand kilometers per second. This will get the spaceship to Alpha Centauri in about a decade or so. However, such a scenario assumes that 100 percent of the energy emitted by the black hole is used for the acceleration of the spaceship. The black hole must also be constantly fed with mass such as interstellar gas collected along the way to sustain it as it journeys to the stars.

Forming an initial black hole will first require crushing a large amount of mass into an extremely tiny volume of space. The technology required to accomplish such a feat is probably far beyond today’s capabilities. However, once an initial black hole is created, additional mass can be fed into the black hole to allow it to grow to the required mass for it to be used as a means to accelerate a spaceship for interstellar space travel. Compared to the annihilation of matter with antimatter, the use of micro black holes as a means of propulsion is probably much more energy efficient because the production of antimatter requires vastly more energy as an input that what can be obtained by the annihilation process. In addition, once a micro black hole is created, it can be made to provide power via the emission of Hawking radiation for an indefinite period of time as long as the black hole is fed with mass to sustain it.