A Ship on the (Event) Horizon
A short story about traveling through the ocean of stars.
Log. Captain Davis, May 17, 2051
We're preparing final tests for the new black star drive. It's an odd piece of technology. Normally a human ship would never have the sufficient energy reserves to travel at high speeds through the galaxy. But scientists have come up with this drive as a solution.
I'm not sure I trust it. The drive is like a regular gravitational slingshot on steroids. Sure, it's become common practice to use a mass like Jupiter or even the sun to slingshot a ship at high speeds. It's how we got out this far in the first place. But this drive is in its own weight class. We're not using a planet, or even a star. We're using two black holes, swirling around each other at relativistic speeds themselves!
It took astronomers a number of years to find an appropriate system that was in reach using traditional means. It was assumed that there were no black holes closer than 1,000 light years, making the technology more or less useless for any intragalactic travel. But then the scientists struck pay dirt. At this ship's maximum speed, it only took us about 10 years to get here. Maybe it was a sign. Or maybe it was an omen.
John, our chief engineer, says we're fine. We have to get close, but not too close. I don't get all of the details, but this system uses a laser pulse that's warped around the binary system and shot back at us, propelling us forward with a high rate of acceleration.
Maybe. But if we time the slingshot wrong, we'll be devoured by these celestial monsters. It's hard to even fathom their size. I was told that these black holes are actually relatively small, each one being only about twice the mass of the sun. They swirl around each other in a cosmic dance that happens at near the speed of light, threatening to rip apart anything that comes too close.
Maybe if we weren't already so far away from home, without any ability to contact command, I'd be less apprehensive. Command sent us numerous messages along the way.
It's strange. Being this far out, we're receiving some of the oldest messages sent. The newest ones are still lightyears away. For all we know, scientists may have found a safer option, or scrapped the project entirely. But even if that were the case, it would take years for any message or warning to reach us.
Still, as long as we don't make any mistakes, we'll be flung at nearly to speed of light, towards our destination. And for a test crew like ours, that's more than enough reward for the risk. The rest of the crew agrees. They wouldn't have taken this mission if they weren't prepared for the risk. Space is beautiful, but it certainly isn't safe.
Precheck is almost complete. The laser is fairly powerful and the sails take some time to unfurl. We will be testing out the drive in one hour and will report on our success. We are truly a ship on the horizon... the horizon of time and space itself. And if we're lucky, we'll be able to sail much deeper into this ocean of stars, looking for new worlds, just as our ancestors sailed the oceans of Earth, searching for new lands.
Received. June 18, 2053. No further communication. Current date, August 25, 2054. Ship assumed lost.
Gravitational slingshots are a way of potentially reaching very high velocities with only minimal fuel use. We really have no way of storing enough fuel to reach those kinds of speeds on our own. The maneuver involves coming very close to a rotating massive body. The gravitational attraction between the ship and the body allows for the transfer of energy from its rotation to the ship. Since the body, such as a planet or star is so much more massive than the ship, the ship gains a lot of energy while the massive object remains almost entirely unchanged.
This phenomenon is well known and has been used in science fiction on numerous occasions, including in Star Trek. It's also used frequently in actual space flights. NASA has a long history of using gravity assists to get our spacecraft deeper into the solar system.
But more recently, there have been proposals to use the effect to push a ship almost to the speed of light, using the phenomenal energy of rotating binary systems of black holes. These kinds of drives are called "Halo Drives" because the laser produces a halo around the rotating masses. I prefer "black star drive" personally.
The real problem is that there really don't seem to be any black holes in our local neighborhood. The possibility of finding a binary black hole system less than 1,000 light years away seems unlikely.