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NASA Aims To Build Tractor Beam

Towing spaceships isn't in the immediate plans, but the agency hopes $100,000 investment in moving objects with lasers will pay off in the laboratory.
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NASA is looking into ways to manipulate objects using laser light, a technology that in science fiction films is more commonly known as a tractor beam.

A team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has won $100,000 from the agency's office of the chief technologist to experiment with three methods for gathering particles and then transporting them via laser to an instrument, according to NASA. The agency said the technology--which is not beyond the realm of possibility in the real world--is similar to a vacuum cleaner using suction to move dirt to a bag.

Lab applications for the tractor beam technology would be to transport particles, molecules, viruses, and other lab samples to an instrument using laser light. More grandiose applications NASA envisions for the technology are to use tractor beams to clean up orbital debris, the Goddard team's principal investigator Paul Stysley said in a statement. However, that may be a bit of a lofty goal at the moment, he admitted.

"To pull something that huge would be almost impossible--at least now," he said. "That's when it bubbled up that perhaps we could use the same approach for sample collection."

[NASA is turning to the cloud to boost compute resources for scientific research. Learn more about the agency's plans: NASA Plans Cloud Marketplace For Scientists.]

The team has identified three ways to manipulate light to create what researchers think will be a successful tractor beam: optical vortex or "optical tweezers," optical solenoid beams, and a laser called a Bessel beam.

The first approach creates an optical vortex involving using two rings of light, one of which is alternately strengthened and weakened in intensity, according to NASA. This will heat the air around the trapped particle, which in experiments has allowed researchers to move a particle along the ring of light's center.

The second technique uses optical solenoid beams with intensity of peaks that spiral around an axis, which in testing has been used to trap and exert a force that sends a particle in the opposite direction of the light-beam source, according to NASA.

The third technique has never been proven and exists solely on paper, the agency said. While a normal laser beam appears as a small point when shined against a wall, Bessel beams show up as rings surrounding a central dot. In theory, this could allow for introducing a spray of light, which has been induced by electric and magnetic fields, in the path of the object. This spray would pull an object backward against the light beam, according to researchers.

Phase 1 funding for the tractor beam experiments comes from the recently reestablished NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which the agency aims to use to develop innovative space technologies.

Indeed, NASA has keen interest in developing next-generation space technologies now that its space shuttle program is closed. The agency recently invested $175 million in three inventions to promote its plans to send manned missions deeper into space, among other endeavors.