We may not be ready to beam ourselves up just yet, but NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which encourages the development of revolutionary space technology, has just given $100,000 to a team of scientists developing tractor beams.
Tractor beams are lasers that function like vacuums. They trap objects–for now, cosmic particles and dust–and transport them to a rover or spacecraft for analysis.
Originally, scientists thought they might be able to use tractor beams to move space debris, but it’ll be a while before we can move something that big. So don’t worry–your spacecraft won’t be caught and pulled in by a tractor beam by the evil empire any time soon.
However, tractor beams could be used to collect planetary and atmospheric samples instead of drilling into the surface of a planet. Tractor beams would also have wider reach and duration than other sample collecting techniques, such as using spacecrafts using aerogels to collect samples from a small area as they fly through.
There are currently three ideas for developing tractor beams. The first is to use an optical vortex, or two beams of light spinning in opposite directions. Particles would be confined to the space inside the circling beams. By alternating the intensity of one or both of the beams, which causes a temperature change around the particles, scientists can move the particles. Applications of this technique are limited, as it can only be used inside of an atmosphere. Biologists have long been using this technique to hold particles in place for examination and experimentation.
The second technique, however, could work in space. It involves using optical solenoid beams that use electromagnets to intensify the force generated by two similar beams of spinning light, which repels the particles away from the light source.
The third technique is, thus far, only theoretical. It relies on the Bessel beam, which unlike a normal laser, generates rings of light around a point, instead of generating only a single point. Theoretically, such a laser could create electric and magnetic fields and the resulting ripples of light could then move objects.
The optical vortex, also known as “optical tweezers,” is probably our best bet for corralling that faraway beer–though for now, you’ll still have to get up and walk to the fridge. But how cool will it be when we can summon that drink while watching multiple moons rise?