It’s a small step (etc.) for a team of researchers at the Australian National University. They've developed a method to control water waves, allowing objects floating on the water's surfaced to be pulled and pushed at will.
To keep it brief: waves are energy itself, and water in a wave doesn’t actually move in the direction the wave propagates – water molecules simply oscillate in place as the wave (i.e. energy) moves through the medium. But the wave energy does generate additional surface currents that can push objects away, pull them closer or even generate vortexes that keep the object in place.
Beam up, water fountain?
Using a wave generator, the scientists set it to oscillate at specific wavelengths that then accomplish the desired effects of pushing objects away or keeping them in place. Their demonstration shows the mastery of positional manipulation via wave generation rather convincingly.
Some of the applications the researchers are thinking about include flinging a Romulan ship out of geosynchronous orbi–– um, we mean upscaling the technology to use in harbours or inlets to move small boats or floating buoys around. The researchers also postulate being able to corral oil spills for easier clean up.
For now, the tractor beam will be limited to dense mediums like water. The reason this technology works is because of the density of water and how it can not only propagate energy but also keep objects afloat on itself. Air, and by extension certainly not deep space, would not have these advantages available.
Even so, large-scale manipulation of water currents has mostly eluded us for all this time. So we think it's fair to say that this still counts as at least a precursor to a giant leap for mankind.
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