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NASA Developing Real-Life Tractor Beams

Artist's conception of a future space probe using a tractor beam to gather samples of material from an asteroid. Credit: NASA

If you are a Star Trek fan, you will of course be familiar with “tractor beams,” those cool-looking laser beams that can grab an object in space and it pull backwards toward the source of the beam (including trapping spacecraft as evil aliens would often do). They are another long-running staple of science fiction that is now closer to science reality. NASA is now working on developing just such technology, which would help primarily in obtaining material samples in real-life space missions, such as on Mars or an asteroid or comet.

A $100,000 study to look at three possible methods has been awarded to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center by the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT). According to Principal Investigator Paul Stysley, “Though a mainstay in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, laser-based trapping isn’t fanciful or beyond current technological know-how.”

The methods being developed can trap and move particles of matter or even single molecules, viruses or cells, using the power of light – maybe not another spacecraft yet, but the principle is the same.

NASA has used various methods of sample-retrieving, all with great success, including aerogel on the Stardust spacecraft to obtain dust samples from the comet Wild 2 and scoops, brushes and rock abrasion tools on various Mars landers and rovers to retrieve rock and soil samples. On the next Mars rover, Curiosity, which is due to be launched later this month, there will be a scoop as well as a drill. It will also feature a laser beam to zap rocks so the resulting particles can be analyzed; not quite the same as a tractor beam but still cool.

The first technique being studied is the optical vortex or “optical tweezers” method which uses two counter-propagating beams of light. Particles are confined to the “dark core” of the overlapping beams. Particles can be moved along the ring’s centre by alternating the strength or weakness of one of the beams. The only catch with this method is that it requires an atmosphere to work. Ideal then maybe for on the surface of Mars or Titan for example, but not for an asteroid or other airless body.

The second technique uses optical solenoid beams, where the intensity peaks spiral around the axis of propagation. Particles can be pulled backwards along the entire length of the beam, and it can operate in a vacuum, no atmosphere necessary.

Both of those techniques have been tested in the laboratory, but the third method, as of yet, has not. It uses what is known as a Bessel beam, which, when projected onto a wall for example, features rings of light surrounding the central dot of light. The effect is similar to looking at ripples surrounding the spot where a pebble has been dropped into a pool of water. Other types of laser beams do not exhibit that however, appearing only as a single point of light. Such a beam could induce electric and magnetic fields in the path of an object, which could then pull the object backwards.

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

A more technical overview of the practicality of tractor beams is here.

About 

Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy and has been a long-time member of The Planetary Society. He currently writes for Universe Today and Examiner.com. His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ray Fowler November 3, 2011, 11:25 PM
  • Rob Hemmings November 4, 2011, 12:08 AM

    Please use one of these tractor beams to make the annoying ‘recommended for you’ thing crash into the atmosphere and burn up! The UT site has become very ‘busy’ with new gadgets lately, making it slow and more difficult to navigate (if you use a scroll wheel, things go up and down like crazy until the whole page has loaded.) This ‘recommended’ thing is just about the last straw for me..

    • Al Wilson November 4, 2011, 1:17 PM

      Just disable Javascript for this site and it becomes whizzy-fast. :-)

      • Anonymous November 4, 2011, 11:01 PM

        I tried that, but it disabled my comments too.

        • Anonymous November 7, 2011, 3:45 PM

          Install the NoScript add-on. and “forbid” everything except UT, disqus and gstatic

      • Anonymous November 4, 2011, 11:01 PM

        I tried that, but it disabled my comments too.

      • Anonymous November 4, 2011, 11:01 PM

        I tried that, but it disabled my comments too.

    • B.Eng. René Schwarz November 5, 2011, 9:20 AM

      Just use an ad blocker like Adblock Plus for Firefox.

    • B.Eng. René Schwarz November 5, 2011, 9:20 AM

      Just use an ad blocker like Adblock Plus for Firefox.

    • B.Eng. René Schwarz November 5, 2011, 9:20 AM

      Just use an ad blocker like Adblock Plus for Firefox.

  • Anonymous November 4, 2011, 4:03 PM

    Scaled up, could this technology be eventually used to divert Earth-threatening asteroids and comets?

  • Anonymous November 4, 2011, 4:28 PM

    If this third method holds true, that sophisticated manipulation of light can pull matter, then I wonder?: would it then be possible someday, once we comprehend just what “dark energy” is, to then learn to harness it, as a source engine for space propulsion?

  • Sam November 4, 2011, 8:15 PM

    Using a tractor beam to gather samples of material from an asteroid is Possible, through Laser beam focus spreading the particles at the asteroid at the same parallel through plunging vacuum tube possible to collect particles with out landing the mission But the particles burn due to laser focus and how we will find organism and original composition of particles, it may vary. Is it possible to acquire the original composition ???
    Sam.G
    SRCOM
    Space Research Center of Madras
    India

  • Sam November 4, 2011, 8:15 PM

    Using a tractor beam to gather samples of material from an asteroid is Possible, through Laser beam focus spreading the particles at the asteroid at the same parallel through plunging vacuum tube possible to collect particles with out landing the mission But the particles burn due to laser focus and how we will find organism and original composition of particles, it may vary. Is it possible to acquire the original composition ???
    Sam.G
    SRCOM
    Space Research Center of Madras
    India

  • Sam November 4, 2011, 8:15 PM

    Using a tractor beam to gather samples of material from an asteroid is Possible, through Laser beam focus spreading the particles at the asteroid at the same parallel through plunging vacuum tube possible to collect particles with out landing the mission But the particles burn due to laser focus and how we will find organism and original composition of particles, it may vary. Is it possible to acquire the original composition ???
    Sam.G
    SRCOM
    Space Research Center of Madras
    India

  • Torbjörn Larsson November 4, 2011, 9:24 PM

    OK, now I got an idea for NASAs “new rocket technologies” challenge. Put solar energy stations in LEO, use a solenoid beam to pump volatiles out of Earth atmosphere to a liquefier, separate LOX and LH, and store the fuel.

    If we can scrounge up 1 “cell” worth of atmosphere mass every second, and a human body consists of ~ 10^14 cells, we can have ~ 100 kg worth of mass in … 3 million years. Damn!

    Next idea, I own this bridge …

  • Torbjörn Larsson November 4, 2011, 9:24 PM

    OK, now I got an idea for NASAs “new rocket technologies” challenge. Put solar energy stations in LEO, use a solenoid beam to pump volatiles out of Earth atmosphere to a liquefier, separate LOX and LH, and store the fuel.

    If we can scrounge up 1 “cell” worth of atmosphere mass every second, and a human body consists of ~ 10^14 cells, we can have ~ 100 kg worth of mass in … 3 million years. Damn!

    Next idea, I own this bridge …

  • Torbjörn Larsson November 4, 2011, 9:24 PM

    OK, now I got an idea for NASAs “new rocket technologies” challenge. Put solar energy stations in LEO, use a solenoid beam to pump volatiles out of Earth atmosphere to a liquefier, separate LOX and LH, and store the fuel.

    If we can scrounge up 1 “cell” worth of atmosphere mass every second, and a human body consists of ~ 10^14 cells, we can have ~ 100 kg worth of mass in … 3 million years. Damn!

    Next idea, I own this bridge …

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