NASA studying ways to make 'tractor beams' a reality

Oct 31, 2011
NASA Goddard laser experts (from left to right) Barry Coyle, Paul Stysley and Demetrios Poulios have won NASA funding to study advanced technologies for collecting extraterrestrial particle samples. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Debora McCallum

Tractor beams -- the ability to trap and move objects using laser light -- are the stuff of science fiction, but a team of NASA scientists has won funding to study the concept for remotely capturing planetary or atmospheric particles and delivering them to a robotic rover or orbiting spacecraft for analysis.

The NASA Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) has awarded Principal Investigator Paul Stysley and team members Demetrios Poulios and Barry Coyle at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., $100,000 to study three experimental methods for corralling particles and transporting them via 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 composition.

"Though a mainstay in science fiction, and in particular, laser-based trapping isn't fanciful or beyond current technological know-how," Stysley said. The team has identified three different approaches for transporting particles, as well as single molecules, viruses, , and fully functioning cells, using the power of light.

"The original thought was that we could use tractor beams for cleaning up ," Stysley said. "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."

With the Phase-1 funding from OCT's recently reestablished NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program designed to spur the development of "revolutionary" space technologies, the team will study the state of the technology to determine which of the three techniques would apply best to sample collection. OCT received hundreds of proposals, ultimately selecting only 30 for initial funding.

Replace Current Sample-Collection Methods

Currently, NASA uses a variety of techniques to collect extraterrestrial samples. With Stardust, a launched in 1999, the Agency used aerogel to gather samples as it flew through the coma of comet Wild 2. A capsule returned the samples in 2006. NASA's next rover to Mars, Curiosity, will drill and scoop samples from the Martian surface and then carry out detailed analyses of the materials with one of the rover's many onboard instruments, including the Goddard-built Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite.

Goddard technologists are studying different techniques for corralling particles and transporting them via laser light to instruments on rovers and orbiting spacecraft. Credit: Concept image courtesy Dr. Paul Stysley

"These techniques have proven to be largely successful, but they are limited by high costs and limited range and sample rate," Stysley said. "An optical–trapping system, on the other hand, could grab desired molecules from the upper atmosphere on an orbiting spacecraft or trap them from the ground or lower atmosphere from a lander. In other words, they could continuously and remotely capture particles over a longer period of time, which would enhance science goals and reduce mission risk."

Team to Study Three Approaches

One experimental approach the team plans to study -- 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.

Another technique employs 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.

The third technique exists only on paper and has never been demonstrated in the laboratory, Poulios said. It involves the use of 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.

"We want to make sure we thoroughly understand these methods. We have hope that one of these will work for our purposes," Coyle said. "Once we select a technique, we will be in position to then formulate a possible system" and compete for additional NIAC funding to advance the technology to the next level of development. "We're at the starting gate on this," Coyle added. "This is a new application that no one has claimed yet."

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User comments : 38

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Isaacsname
not rated yet Oct 31, 2011
Bessel beams and X-waves sound pretty interesting. The optical vortex method sounds really dang cool too. I wonder could they vaporize material with the inner beam as well ?
kaasinees
1 / 5 (2) Oct 31, 2011
I hope the Bessel beam works out, it could be adapted to so many things.
CapitalismPrevails
2 / 5 (12) Oct 31, 2011
The closest thing we have to a tractor beam today is quantum levitation. Look at this cool video:
http://www.youtub...pp_video
kaasinees
Oct 31, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
xznofile
5 / 5 (2) Oct 31, 2011
that's fine for dust in a vacuum but will it work on a Klingon vessel under power.
_nigmatic10
1 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2011
Create a cylindrical laser and create a vacuum in the center... just an idea. Could be something for space based application.
electrodynamic
not rated yet Nov 01, 2011
You could collect the surrounding dust, perhaps melting that material together to make small pellets, you could then launch these small pellets at space junk knocking it out of orbit.
A solar powered motor could launch the little pellets etc.
hush1
2.1 / 5 (11) Nov 01, 2011
Congratulations. Kudos.
What a wonderful way to clear all the debris from all the orbitals. What a wonderful way to fulfill any and all Design for Demise requirements.

What a wonderful way to dupe the public with faux science and still place anything to your heart's desire in orbit without a single successful plan to deal with the demise.

What a wonderful way to appease to buy time until the 'project' is declared not doable. Duping a la NASA.
MarkyMark
1.6 / 5 (7) Nov 01, 2011
Hush1 come back when you have evidence for your whacky conspiracy thories concerning the secret Stalin controlled world goverment or whatever it is you belive in.
hush1
2.7 / 5 (7) Nov 01, 2011
MarkyMark
It is impossible to give you a reply to whatever you stated.
You have to make sense first.
powerup1
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 01, 2011
@hush1. I don't understand why someone with a world view like the you have would bother to come to a site like this in the first place. You should be watching a Alax Jones video or something. :-D
Arx_Ferrum
5 / 5 (6) Nov 01, 2011
The insults and attacks on this website are horrible. Why do we do this to complete strangers? Why are we forcing laws to restrict free speech on the internet?
hush1
1 / 5 (4) Nov 01, 2011
Powerup1
I never owned or had a video recorder or TV.
I will conjecture that is why you don't understand.
Anything.
:P
arri_guy
5 / 5 (8) Nov 01, 2011
I check physorg every morning (except Sunday) along with CNN, BBC, etc., and I depend on it to stay abreast of developments in the sciences. I have to agree with Arx Ferrum about the insults and attacks: totally unnecessary and inapropriate. Since I also agree about the internet as an uncensored public forum, I suggest that the nut cases go to craigslist/rants and raves instead of here. Please.
bluehigh
2.9 / 5 (19) Nov 01, 2011
Then read the articles and ignore the comments, you thin skinned, narrow minded twit. Do you think you have a monopoly on sanity and what constitutes a 'nutcase' or not. In the real world people do disagree, sometimes strongly and you might be better off using the nature of the comments to assess the character of the contributors. Me? I just don't like your morally superior attitude. Piss off.

bluehigh
2.3 / 5 (9) Nov 01, 2011
I do like the word 'abreast' though. It sounds so enticing and may be related to 'attractor' beams.
hush1
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 01, 2011
lol
Curves or bust for me.
Although someone had the initiative to correct me:
Curves and bust.
At that point, I ask for a draw and we were drew in agreement.
hush1
not rated yet Nov 01, 2011
"...we drew in agreement" (Without the typo "were".)
It's chess (chest?) talk - for the uninitiated.
bluehigh
2 / 5 (8) Nov 01, 2011
The FSM says ..

'Use a narrow directed curvature intensity beam (or give the curve potential a twist) and stuff comes to you. All this mucking about with photons, how quaint.'

'.. and the Unicorn wants a word with Ethelred about God'.

I plead with it to stop confusing me.

The FSM grunts and tells me 'don't doubt just because you don't understand, after all you still believe the Universe can be quantified'.

'Who moved my cheese'.
Ethelred
3.7 / 5 (6) Nov 01, 2011
The insults and attacks on this website are horrible
I agree. They are SO badly done. No skill at all. Completely without style or wit.

Why do we do this to complete strangers?
Why ask a question when already know the answer.

Why are we forcing laws to restrict free speech on the Internet?
We aren't. And such a law would have no effect in the US. The Supreme Court would knock it down as it has done many times already.

Sorry I am presently unable to produce a worthy insult. Perhaps if you were to make a much stupider post I would be inspired. This is the best I can do:

For a first post that was mediocre. No passion, only a boring rant coupled with an unneeded question. First posts should have some passion. Many first posts have been directed at me for savaging deserving Cranks so I know passion when I see it. There was no spittle, no self-contradictory statements, no bizarre non-sequitors just one silly question which contained the answer.

Ethelred
Ethelred
4.3 / 5 (7) Nov 01, 2011
Unicorn wants a word with Ethelred about God'.
The Unicorn can stand in line. Right behind Ken Hamm.

Now that post had non-sequitors anyway. I wasn't even on this thread when it was written.

I think that Hush is causing brain damage.

Ethelred
SteveL
5 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2011
I can't help but wonder how much energy in is required to get how much "attractive" force out, and additionally: What is the maximum potential "attractive" force anyhow? Will it be strong enough to counter 1G, 1.5G? or what?
hush1
3 / 5 (2) Nov 01, 2011
lol Ethelred
An overreaching conclusion. It pains me to read some comments. I take pains to understand. Painstaking are the attempts to understand you all. The attempts harm me not. I remain unscathed. No self damaged done. Besides, in an imperfect world, healing makes sense.

lol Bluehigh.
Bill Nemo
5 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2011
Everyone gets so excited about these potential SF to actual effect articles.

Just because you can demonstrate some effect at a quantum level doesn't mean it will scale up to a real life level.
ProfessorDJinn
5 / 5 (5) Nov 01, 2011
Bill, while I may agree in part with your sentiment, things like optical tweezers have been around almost 20 years. Laser manipulation of atoms and molecules continues to progress. It is possible to trap and manipulate dust sized particles.

However the engineer in me would like to see a cost/benefit analysis. The article makes the point that a system like this could be used continuously, the 'infinite ammo' argument. But is it really better than say, a scoop, on the Martian surface? Or for instance an aerogel trap in the vacuum of space? Perhaps the specific targeting of individual dust particles is desirable. But it feels unnecessarily complex.
Nerdyguy
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 01, 2011
The insults and attacks on this website are horrible. Why do we do this to complete strangers? Why are we forcing laws to restrict free speech on the internet?


Exactly which laws would those be? And, btw, I agree with everything else you said.
Gawad
5 / 5 (4) Nov 01, 2011
Then read the articles and ignore the comments, you thin skinned, narrow minded twit. Do you think you have a monopoly on sanity and what constitutes a 'nutcase' or not. In the real world people do disagree, sometimes strongly and you might be better off using the nature of the comments to assess the character of the contributors. Me? I just don't like your morally superior attitude. Piss off.

While it's true that one could just go about reading the articles and ignoring the comments, arri_guy's comment isn't completely without merit as the comment section does, in theory, have the *potential* to provive readers with additional, useful insights into the content of the articles. However, as the % of posts of dubious value increases in any forum, it becomes harder and harder to justify spending time to fish out interesting posts, leading a lot of worthwhile contributors to drop out, in turn leading to a network effect where the signal to noise ratio goes to almost all noise.
Gawad
5 / 5 (6) Nov 01, 2011
It's not just about various people vigourously expressing strong differences of opinion. Lord knows physics is full of researchers treating each other like assholes (though this seems to have gotten much worse since the rise of string theory, but I digress). It's about the problem of "equal time" being given to notions that really are insane and without merit (no evidence). And at some point, if no one in charge puts their foot down to curb the worst abuses /the only things left on these forums are going to be the ones contributed by the nutcases and the insane./ I think it's especially worth bringing up because over the last few months Physorg admins seem to have completely abdicated the enforcement of their own rules regarding cranking and religous & creationist postings.

Of course, contenting ourselves with just reading the articles remains an option, but what a pity that someone 'reasonable' might avoid interations with other readers because the forum has become so acidic in tone.
Bill Nemo
5 / 5 (2) Nov 01, 2011
Prof:

You misconstrue.

As an engineer, my objection is to making a jump from a small advance in technology to these Star Trek technologies as being very presumptuous.

I will admit that there have been some advances that are not beyond possibility, like the personal communicator (cellphone), medical scanner (MRI, CATSCAN, et al), data tablet (i pad), etc. All these are were advances that logically would seem to be predictable in some form or other.

Occasionally, you get a surprise - like transparent aluminum.

However, there is a great difference between gathering space dust and locking on to a 2 ton defunct satellite.

Much as many of us like Star Trek, what I object to are huge editorial jumps from lab parlor tricks to hard technology, very early in the game.

freflyte
not rated yet Nov 01, 2011
We already have this tractor beam technology fully developed... it is called Washington DC.
SteveL
not rated yet Nov 03, 2011
We already have this tractor beam technology fully developed... it is called Washington DC.

It sucks in money and and resources and extrudes crap.
Bill Nemo
5 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2011
On the macro level, you would need to use some combination of tractor and "pressor" beams to handle objects safely and with stability, as pointed our by Robert Heinlein (who was an engineer, in his 1941 novel, The Day After Tomorrow (Sixth Column).

If you didn't have this combination, you would draw the object you were manipulating right into the tractor beam projector.

So even if you could come up with a tractor beam to use on a macro level, it would also be necessary to develop a "pressor" beam to use the tractor beam properly.

It would be the "negative feedback" required for a stable system.

This would be mandatory for "towing" an object instead of merely drawing in (or collecting) objects.

hush1
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 05, 2011
Built 'only' for 'draw in', take the air fiction and/or resistance for granted as a "negative feedback". Not accurate at all with varying density - just enough to get the orbital junk intact back.
MorituriMax
not rated yet Nov 05, 2011
So, basically our planet will only ever be able to develop technology described in the better science fiction stories?
hush1
3 / 5 (2) Nov 05, 2011
If that were true, then 'junk' never had a meaning.
CHollman82
1.9 / 5 (13) Nov 05, 2011
Then read the articles and ignore the comments, you thin skinned, narrow minded twit. Do you think you have a monopoly on sanity and what constitutes a 'nutcase' or not. In the real world people do disagree, sometimes strongly and you might be better off using the nature of the comments to assess the character of the contributors. Me? I just don't like your morally superior attitude. Piss off.


In the real world decent people don't act like you because they would never be taken seriously by anyone or in any line of work and would end up in poverty due to their inability to productively correspond with others of differing opinion.
bluehigh
3 / 5 (16) Nov 05, 2011
@CHollman

Again you choose to be negatively combative. Among my many failings is that I can hold a grudge indefinitely.

Perhaps if you stop framing your opinions as fact and ceased just being contradictory then you might acquire some social skills in your sad lonely little life.

As for poverty and inability to be productive - once again, these are things of which you would be familiar.

CHollman82
1.9 / 5 (13) Nov 05, 2011
@CHollman

Again you choose to be negatively combative. Among my many failings is that I can hold a grudge indefinitely.

Perhaps if you stop framing your opinions as fact and ceased just being contradictory then you might acquire some social skills in your sad lonely little life.

As for poverty and inability to be productive - once again, these are things of which you would be familiar.



I was merely pointing out how juvenile your behavior is and that it was ironically a perfect example of what the poster you were replying to was talking about in the first place.

You've demonstrated my point yet again, and for that I thank you.
SteveL
5 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2011
I suppose to some calling another a "thin skinned, narrow minded twit" is not in their perception "negatively combative" - as long as it is them directing such comments towards another.

Personally I'd also prefer to see a bit more civility on open forums. But as we are only accountable for our own actions not those of another the ability to ignore some posts can be useful.

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