Kugelblitz! Powering a Starship With a Black Hole

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Jeff Lee, Researcher for the X-Physics, Propulsion and Power group of the nonprofit research organization Icarus Interstellar, and faculty member of Crescent School, discusses the possibility of a starship powered by black holes.

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Interstellar flight certainly ranks among the most daunting challenges ever postulated by human civilization. The distances to even the closest stars are so stupendous that constructing even a scale model of interstellar distance is impractical. For instance, if on such a model, the separation of the Earth and sun is 1 inch, the nearest star to our solar system (Proxima Centauri) would be 4.3 miles away!

The fastest object ever built by the human species is the Voyager 1 space probe, moving at a speed of 18 miles per second. If it were heading toward Proxima Centauri (which it’s not), Voyager 1 would reach our nearest stellar neighbor in about 80,000 years.

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Clearly, if interstellar travel is to be accomplished on human timescales, much greater speeds are required. At 10 percent of the speed of light (a thousand times faster than Voyager 1, but a conceivable speed for likely soon-to-be-realized fusion engines), Proxima Centuri could be reached in approximately 45 years -- less than a human lifetime.

However, the necessary energies to achieve substantial fractions of the speed of light, thus cutting the travel time to the stars to less than a human lifetime, are equally mindboggling.

Every pound of starship moving at 99.9 percent the speed of light will have a kinetic energy more than three times greater than the energy of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. Nevertheless, there may be a way of supplying an engine with such prodigious energies.

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In his 1955 paper Geons, John Wheeler, one of the pioneers of the theory of black holes, coined the term "Kugelblitz" -- which translates literally to "ball lightning." He suggested that if enough pure energy could be focused into a region of space, that energy would form a microscopic black hole, which could be described by the equations of Karl Schwarzschild -- a "Schwarzschild Kugelblitz" (or SK).

Fast forward 19 years to the ground-breaking work of Stephen Hawking, who realized that quantum mechanical effects near a black hole’s event horizon (the boundary beyond which no light or other radiation can escape) would give rise to the emission of radiation, so-called "Hawking Radiation." The smaller the black hole, the greater its radiated power and the less its mass, but the shorter its lifetime until it completely evaporates.

Wheeler’s postulate and Hawking’s theory of black hole radiation make conceivable an entirely new type of interstellar spacecraft, one whose propulsion and/or power systems would be fed by a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz.

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To be useful, a SK would need to be small enough to expel the required energy, light enough to be reasonably accelerated, but large enough to have a sufficiently useful lifetime. Such a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz would be incredibly small, smaller than even a proton, which is one of the basic constituents of an atom.

Despite being so miniscule, Schwarzschild Kugelblitzes are incredibly heavy. A typical SK weighs more than two Empire State Buildings, and has a power output of approximately 129 petawatts (1 petawatt = 10 quadrillion watts). This is 10 million times the July 2013 power consumption record of New York City!

In 1993, Schwarzschild Kugelblitzes pierced the realm of popular culture, albeit under a pseudonym. In the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Timescape", an artificial quantum singularity (i.e. Schwarzschild Kugelblitz) is revealed to be a Romulan Warbird’s power source.