Whatever Happened to Black Holes as Star-drives?

Black Hole Hawking Radiation Power & Thrust
Black Hole Hawking Radiation Power & Thrust

Back in 1979 Robert Freitas, in his massive now-classic study “Xenology” first discussed Black Holes and their Hawking radiation as a possible propulsion system for interstellar flight (section 17.3.5.) Since then the concept has remained relatively ignored, since black holes are hard to make and hard to handle. By the late 2000’s, as our confidence in the existence of Hawking radiation had grown, the idea was revisited by Louis Crane, with his colleague Shawn Westmoreland, in a 2009 preprint.

In the above Table I’ve set out black-holes of various masses and have computed their self-thrust, with results similar to Freitas’s. Since the holes mass millions of tonnes, any associated starship should likewise mass similar amounts, so the acceleration can be ~halved. The very smallest black holes might prove difficult to feed at the indicated rates, since they’re smaller than protons, so Crane & Westmoreland suggested using the black hole as a “battery” – a finite store of energy – and letting it push self and payload until just before its final explosive last few seconds. One problem is that the hole becomes very energetic indeed as it loses mass, so just when the appropriate time to EJECT is an interesting question. For every 10-fold decrease in mass, the self-acceleration increases 1000-fold, so a crewed starship would need either acceleration mitigation or would need to eject once the black-hole was under one million tonnes.

For some background, several good introductions to Hawking radiation exist – Andrew Hamilton’s and the Think Quest discussions are the ones I’ve found most helpful. And, of course, there’s the paper by Crane & Westmoreland.

Since then, however, further exploration of the concept has been pursued by Jeff Lee, under the resonant name Black Hole Kugelblitz – though with less than interstellar results: Acceleration of a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz Starship The main problem is that the known particle spectrum of the Standard Model of particle physics causes much lower purely energy outputs, producing mostly a spray of near useless short-lived particles. Worse, the gamma radiation also produced is near impossible to redirect and can only be partially absorbed by a huge hemisphere of titanium (a good gamma absorber), thus making a poor Photon Rocket, which uses just a fraction of its power to produce directional thrust.

In conclusion the concept needs considerable work before it can be considered an interstellar drive option. The radiation intensities that need to be handled boggle the mind. However coupling our particle theories to black holes is not without problems – quantum gravity may well alter the intensity once the hole is small enough and we have no clear idea of the fate of the multitudinous particles produced. Does a super dense ball of quagma result, “stuck” to the ball by gluons dragged out of the vacuum of space? The related idea, of quark matter, might present the option of embedding a Kugelblitz inside a quark nugget. A more developed understanding of the quantum chromodynamic (QCD) vacuum and quantum gravity needs developing.

For now, like the original Photon Rocket, this idea goes back on the shelf, until our physics catches up.