NASA Looks to Make Tractor Beams a Reality

Tractor beams — the ability to trap and move objects using laser light — are not just “Star Trek” science fiction, and are not beyond current technology. A team of NASA scientists has won funding to study the concept of remotely capturing planetary or atmospheric particles, and delivering them to a robotic rover or orbiting spacecraft for analysis.

NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) has awarded Principal Investigator Paul Stysley and team members Demetrios Poulios and Barry Coyle at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland funding to study three experimental methods for capturing particles and transporting them via laser light to an instrument. Once delivered, an instrument would then characterize their composition.

The team has identified three different approaches for transporting particles, as well as single molecules, viruses, ribonucleic acid, and fully functioning cells, using the power of light. The team will study the state of the technology to determine which of the three techniques would apply best to sample collection.

One technique is the optical vortex or "optical tweezers" method, and involves the use of two counter-propagating beams of light. Another technique employs optical solenoid beams — those whose intensity peaks spiral around the axis of propagation. The third technique exists only on paper and involves the use of a Bessel beam.

Click here to watch a video of how a hypothetical future mission might employ tractor beam technology.

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