Supermassive Black Hole

‘High Life’ in a black hole

Image credit: Science Photo Library

Black holes are enormously powerful, but could they offer an energy source that we could tap into? That is the premise behind ‘High Life’.

‘High Life’ doesn’t feel like a science-fiction story, in as much as the science fiction forms only the backdrop rather than troubling the actual storyline too much. Instead, it is a drama based around a group of predominantly young adults that find themselves thrown into long-term coexistence in the confines of a space ship.

Not surprisingly there is considerable sexual tension in the group – not helped by the decidedly saucy Dr Dibs, who is driven to prove that reproduction is an option when you are on the unnatural side of the Earth’s atmosphere. All bar one of such experiments come to unfortunate ends as the radiation in the space ship proves too much for the embryonic space travellers.

It is also worth pointing out that this is a motley crew made up of convicts destined for a life in imprisonment – this trip being offered as a way out, a way to give something back in service to science. I’m not going to lie, and without giving away anything that is not entirely predictable, it doesn’t end well for many on board.

The purpose of this eight-year quest is to sidle up to a black hole and assess if it is possible to tap into its energy, potentially providing a source of energy that could fuel Earth forever, and this is what Big Screen is turning its attention to this month.

An obvious point here is that the nearest black hole (V616 Monoceros) is 3,000 light years away. Even though our space ship in ‘High Life’ attained the admirable speed of “99 per cent the speed of light”, this clearly means that the nearest black hole would take just a fraction more than 3,000 years to reach. Which is considerably more than eight. A far more convincing story about the speed of travel in space is needed.

Just on the subject of speed, it is claimed that the gravitational effect on board is created by constant acceleration. In my mind that only works if you are accelerating at the same rate as the gravitational force that you are trying to replicate (presumably 9.8m/s2), and when you reach 99 per cent the speed of light you run out of acceleration room. My rule of thumb is that there should either be a convincing scientific explanation or no attempt at one (e.g. turning on gravity by pressing the gravitational field button).

Putting all that aside, are black holes a useful source of boundless energy? Instinctively it feels that the Sun has more than enough energy to satisfy our needs and it does have the advantage of being relatively local. But let’s run with the black hole idea.

Probably the first useful thing to know about black holes is that we don’t know that they really exist. We can observe places where no light is emitted or able to pass through and witness events that demonstrate a destructive pulling power of these dark spaces, but black holes are the theoretical explanation. They are the only explanation that currently makes sense, and as E&T was going to press a remarkable image was released that further supports the theory.  

Dr Paola Amico, instrument physicist at the European Southern Observatory, explains further: “We cannot, of course, observe black holes in a ‘conventional way’, since they do not emit light, but we observe their gravitational effects. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity has passed (very recently) two direct tests that are linked to the very existence of black holes: according to the theory, gravitational waves of the magnitude we have observed in 2015 can only be generated by black holes ‘merging events’.”

Black holes possess gravitational energy from the fact that they have mass; also, if spinning, they have kinetic energy. It is difficult to see how either energy source could be usefully harvested given the hostility of the environment. But there is another possibility in the radiation theorised by and subsequently named after Stephen Hawking.

Dr Amico continues: “In theory one could capture the emitted particles [Hawking radiation] at the event horizon – very difficult to do it though, given the enormous gravitational pull.” To counter this pull the energy-harvesting device would need to orbit the black hole very, very fast to maintain a stable position not too far away from the event horizon – the line beyond which nothing can escape the gravitational pull and where Hawking radiation is created. For reference, our fastest planet is Mercury at a speedy 107,000mph, and they slow down the further they are away from the Sun – the Earth proceeds at a stately 67,000mph while Neptune dawdles at a mere 12,000mph.

Our radiation-gathering device, therefore, needs to be built for incredible speed, be able to withstand phenomenally destructive gravitational forces and then collect the energy and put it in a useful form ready to be transmitted 3,000 light years back to Earth. It sounds like an expensive way of keeping the lights on.

The transmitting of energy would presumably be using a technology that goes under the name of power beaming (and various others). The notion of having solar energy-harvesting satellites – beaming the energy back down to Earth – is something that has been experimented with at some length, initially by the Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, before deciding that the cost of getting the necessary materials into orbit made the idea uneconomic. However, China announced earlier this year its intention to build power satellites. So this is a technology that has potential, albeit unproven, for near-space applications, harvesting the energy from our own Sun. Beaming power across 3,000 light years seems to be stretching even wild imaginations.

I had other issues with this movie, both from a technology point of view and also a strange timeline – not that it jumped around in confusing fashion in the way that so many films have done since ‘Pulp Fiction’, but that time spans between the significant events just didn’t seem to add up. Normally I am quite happy to suspend belief and enjoy the story but in this case, for me, the story didn’t warrant the excessive amounts of belief that needed to be suspended.

‘High Life’ is released in the UK on 10 May 2019

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