A new study from researchers at Columbia University in New York suggests future spaceships could use black holes as powerful launch pads to explore the universe. The study “envisions firing laser beams that would curve around a black hole and come back with added energy to help propel a spacecraft to near the speed of light,” reports Space.com. “Astronomers could look for signs that alien civilizations are using such a ‘halo drive,’ as the study dubs it, by seeing if pairs of black holes are merging more often than expected.” From the report: Study author David Kipping, an astrophysicist at Columbia University in New York, came up with the idea of the halo drive through what he calls “the gamer’s mindset.” Using what he called a “halo drive” — named for the ring of light it would create around a black hole — Kipping found that even spaceships with the mass of Jupiter could achieve relativistic speeds. “A civilization could exploit black holes as galactic waypoints,” he wrote in a study accepted by the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society and detailed online Feb. 28 in the arXiv preprint server.
The major drawback of a halo drive would be that “one has to travel to the nearest black hole,” Kipping said. “It’s akin to paying a one-time toll fee to ride the highway system. You have to pay some energy to reach the nearest access point, but after that, you can ride for free as a long as you like.” The halo drive works only in close proximity to a black hole, at a distance of about five to 50 times the black hole’s diameter. “This is why you have to travel to the nearest black hole first and [why you] can’t simply do this across light-years of space,” Kipping said. “We still first require a means to travel to nearby stars to ride the highway system. Kipping is now investigating ways to exploit other astronomical systems for relativistic flight. Such techniques “may not be quite as efficient or fast as the halo-drive approach, but these systems possess the deep energy reserves needed for these journeys,” Kipping said.