NASA scientists reveal 3 ways to make Trek's tractor beams real

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Dec 15, 2012

We saw research a few months ago that says we really can make tractor beams real. Now NASA scientists are investing time and money into figuring out just how this can be practically applied, but definitely on a smaller scale than Star Trek.

The space agency is dropping 100 grand to research the various ways to make a tractor beam actually work, but they're only planning to try it on very, very small things at this point. We're talking cellular levels here.

Though moving things the size of a starship (or a person, for that matter) is far outside the realm of possibility, NASA does believe they could use laser technology to push and pull smaller things like particles in space. This would make tractor beam technology ideal for picking up dust and other samples from things like, for example, the surface of Mars:

"The original thought was that we could use tractor beams for cleaning up orbital debris,' said Paul Stysley, who's heading the research team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "But to pull something that huge would be almost impossible—at least now. That's when it bubbled up that perhaps we could use the same approach for sample collection."

The research team plans to look into three different methods that might work as a practical tractor beam, and all of them sound satisfyingly science-fiction-y.

Method one involves creating an optical vortex or "optical tweezers," the use of two beams of light orbiting each other in such a way that an object can be moved through the center of their orbit:

"The resulting ring-like geometry confines particles to the dark core of the overlapping beams.

By alternately strengthening or weakening the intensity of one of the light beams—in effect heating the air around the trapped particle—researchers have shown in laboratory testing that they can move the particle along the ring's center."

Method two uses "optical solenoid" beams to orbit around the object that needs to be moved:

Testing has shown that the approach can trap and exert a force that drives particles in the opposite direction of the light-beam source.

The researchers found this technique can operate in a vacuum.

Method three employs a "Bessel beam," a laser that creates light rings around a central point:

"The beam could—in theory at least—induce magnetic fields in the path of an object, pulling it backwards against the movement of the beam."

It's not exactly operating at Death Star levels, but one of these methods could be the start of a new technology that could eventually grow to resemble what we've seen in movies:

"We want to make sure we thoroughly understand these methods. We have hope that one of these will work for our purposes," said Barry Coyle, a member of the scientific team. "We're at the starting gate on this. This is a new application that no one has claimed yet."

(via The Daily Mail)