Next Big Thing – tractor beams

Star Trek coined the name tractor beam, but lasers that draw things in are already a reality

Isn’t tractor a bit of an old fashioned name?

True, it was used by Star Trek of old and pertains to a big, diesel spitting mud rover from years ago. But, that’s not the point – the point is Nasa is offering a US$100,000 prize to any boffin that can work out how to make a laser that pulls in objects.

But is that realistically going to happen?

Yes, there are already three possible options. The first is optical tweezers where an object is trapped between two lasers before being drawn in. The second uses solenoid beams whose intensity spirals around the beam itself to trap objects inside. The third is similar but with an intensity that rises and falls in peaks and troughs to trap objects that way – these are called Bessel beams.

Sounds conceptual – are they close to cracking it?

Yup, solenoid beams have already proved they work as tractor beams – but we're talking about moving molecules here. So it’ll be great for collecting samples on different planets – making missions safer, faster and easier. But using a handheld version to move your mate’s car onto his roof for a laugh won’t be around anytime soon.

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