Scientists create a working tractor beam. (There's a catch.)

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Adam-Troy Castro
Dec 14, 2012

We're not at the stage where we can haul errant shuttlecraft into the shuttle bay as the Enterprise did on a regular basis (or where we have shuttlecraft, shuttle bays or Constitution class starships), but scientists have created a tractor beam that can move small particles about 5 feet. Hey, it's a start.

According to Popular Science:

It works by shining a hollow laser beam around small glass particles, as Inside Science explains. The air around the particle heats up, but the hollow center of the beam stays cool. The heated air molecules keep the object balanced in the dark center. But a small amount of light sneaks into the hollow, warming the air on one side of the object and nudging it along the length of the laser beam. Researchers can change the speed and direction of the glass object by changing the lasers' brightness.

The system needs heated air or gas to work, so in its present incarnation it wouldn't work in space -- sorry, Star Wars fans. But it could be used for a variety of purposes on Earth, like biological research or movement of hazardous materials.

Other things have been moved with light before, but we're talking things the size of bacteria moved a few millimeters, not glass particles moved five feet, which (relatively speaking) is a huge advance. And it's actually a little better than that.

But Andrei Rhode and colleagues at the Australian National University say their new laser device can move glass objects hundreds of times bigger than bacteria, and shove them a meter and a half (5 feet) or more. Rhode says the 1.5-meter limit was only because of the size of the table where he placed his lasers -- he thinks he can move objects up to 10 meters, or about 30 feet.

At this rate we'll have to reclassify Star Trek from "science fiction" to "science fact" by, oh, say, the year 2245. (See what we did there?)