NASA looking at building tractor beams for space

NASA funding three experiments that could trap and move objects using laser light

Tractor beams -- the ability to trap and move objects using laser light – have generally been the purview of Star Trek and other science fiction shows but NASA has real-life space plans for the far-out technology.

NASA this week said it had awarded $100,000 to researchers at its Goddard Space Flight Center to study tractor beam technology that could remotely capture planetary or atmospheric particles and deliver them to a robotic rover or orbiting spacecraft for analysis.

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NASA said its researchers will be looking at three experimental methods for corralling particles and transporting them via laser light to an instrument -- akin to a vacuum using suction to collect and transport dirt to a canister or bag. Once delivered, an instrument would then characterize their make-up, NASA said.

NASA described the three experimental technologies:

Optical tweezers:  The optical vortex or "optical tweezers" method -- involves the use of two counter-propagating beams of light. The resulting ring-like geometry confines particles to the dark core of the overlapping beams. By alternately strengthening or weakening the intensity of one of the light beams -- in effect heating the air around the trapped particle -- researchers have shown in laboratory testing that they can move the particle along the ring's center. This technique, however, requires the presence of an atmosphere.

Solenoid Beaming:  Using optical solenoid beams -- those whose intensity peaks spiral around the axis of propagation. Testing has shown that the approach can trap and exert a force that drives particles in the opposite direction of the light-beam source. In other words, the particulate matter is pulled back along the entire beam of light. Unlike the optical vortex method, this technique relies solely on electromagnetic effects and could operate in a space vacuum, making it ideal for studying the composition of materials on one of the airless planetary moons, for example.

Bessel Beaming: The third technique exists only on paper and has never been demonstrated in the laboratory, NASA said. It involves the use of what’s known as a Bessel beam. Normal laser beams when shined against a wall appear as a small point. With Bessel beams, however, rings of light surround the central dot. In other words, when seen straight on, the Bessel beam looks like the ripples surrounding a pebble dropped in a pond. According to theory, the laser beam could induce electric and magnetic fields in the path of an object. The spray of light scattered forward by these fields could pull the object backward, against the movement of the beam itself, NASA said.

"Though a mainstay in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, laser-based trapping isn't fanciful or beyond current technological know-how," Principal Investigator of the project Paul Stysley said in a statement.   "The original thought was that we could use tractor beams for cleaning up orbital debris. But to pull something that huge would be almost impossible -- at least now. That's when it bubbled up that perhaps we could use the same approach for sample collection."

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