NASA aims to build real tractor beams

The latest installment in my series that I am now calling “Holy Crap, Science Fiction is Finally Here!” involves NASA’s announcement that they will be working on tractor beams.

Yes, you read that right – NASA is actually trying to figure out how to make a working tractor beam. My fellow sci-fi fans may need to use the facilities right about now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Long has the tractor beam – the ability to move objects using only laser beams – been a staple of science fiction. Both the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” universes have them, and it has been featured in literature as early as the late 1920s. Real-life scientists have been theorizing about its potential development since the 1960s. But only recently has any headway been made into bringing them closer to reality.

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Now NASA has set aside money for a team to study various methods by which tractor beams might be developed for practical use. Likely one of the first uses a working prototype would be put to collect particle and molecular samples from things such as comet tails more efficiently than current methods.

One process uses two overlapping pulsating beams that use changes in air temperature so particles would be pulled up between them with a sort of light-based peristalsis. Another uses solenoid beams whose waves spiral around an axis and can suck up particles like a straw.

A third method, one that has never been developed beyond the theory stage, involves a beam of light whose cross-section looks like ripples in a pond, and which can induce magnetic fields in the path of an object.

Once put into use with current technology, these methods will only be effective on matter at the molecular level. So, unfortunately, you won’t be able to use lasers to move your sleeper sofa into the house any time soon. For that you’ll still have to rely on the current technology — a pick-up truck, three friends who owe you a favor and a couple six packs of beer.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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