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NASA Space Science

NASA Wants To Make Tractor Beams a Reality 91

Posted by Soulskill
from the check-with-wil-wheaton dept.
intellitech sends this quote from a NASA news release: "Tractor beams — the ability to trap and move objects using 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." Reader Bob the Super Hamste adds, "The article along with the BBC's coverage discuss briefly three methods of how this can be done with lasers. The first method called 'optical tweezers,' in which a molecule is trapped where two beams cross (PDF). However, it requires an atmosphere to work. The second method using solenoid beams has already worked in the laboratory (PDF). The third method using Bessel beams has yet to be experimentally proven."
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NASA Wants To Make Tractor Beams a Reality

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  • He has more experience working with them than anyone else.
    • Even if you could get him on the phone, he'll never get past the tractor beam. Unless Obi-Wan is nearby, in which case - leave it to him.

      • by fyngyrz (762201)

        Tractor beams are easy. You just weld a bunch of tractors together into beams, and use 'em like tweezers.

  • I don't remember any show defining a tractor beam as light..

    • by spidercoz (947220)
      What part of the word "beam" do you misunderstand? They're not talking about steel girders here.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by CanHasDIY (1672858)
        Any sort of EM radiation can be beamed; the term is not exclusive to visible light.

        Ever heard of a radio?
        • by Chris Burke (6130)

          Any sort of EM radiation can be beamed; the term is not exclusive to visible light.

          Right, and any sort of EM radiation is light. The term is not exclusive to visible light (which is why when talking in a scientific context one says "visible light" to distinguish).

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          Any sort of EM radiation can be beamed; the term is not exclusive to visible light.

          Not just EM radiation. Sound can be beamed ; particle radiation can be beamed (alpha, beta ; gamma is light). Anything that has a direction to it can be beamed.

      • The most generic relevant definition could indicate anything that can be "emitted". I suppose for a traditional tractor beam it would have to be something you could emit in a straight line, so radio waves may not be ideal, but I'm not a scientist.

    • This is NASA, doing it with light, instead of Hollywood doing it with (insert witty insulting implication here _____ )

      • fricken laser beams?

      • I don't know.... Still seems and wildly outside of their area of expertise, but it isn't as if NASA has anything better to do without the budget for actual space with rockets and people. Very neat though, if only applicable for molecules.

        Is anyone else disappointed that it is the BBC that has to cover this rather than an American source? I'm not saying that they aren't great reporters, just that it is disappointing that there is so little interest in America.
        • Is anyone else disappointed that it is the BBC that has to cover this rather than an American source? I'm not saying that they aren't great reporters, just that it is disappointing that there is so little interest in America.

          MSNBC [msn.com], Forbes [forbes.com], and Wired [wired.com] have it and, er, that's it. On the one hand it is disappointing to see such a lack of interest, however on the other hand I fear that more mainstream sources would pay more attention to the cost while conveniently overlooking the benefits or feasibility, so maybe the less they say about it the better. This is the kind of thing that congressional Republicans get up in arms about because it sounds nice and vague, something pie-in-the-sky that they can spin as "more government waste"

          • by houghi (78078)

            Just tell the Republicans it is to fight communism, uh, drugs, children, terrorism, or whatever their current war is against and they will be happy to put in a gazillion dollars.

            • by Bucky24 (1943328)

              Just tell the Republicans it is to fight communism, uh, drugs, children, terrorism, or whatever their current war is against

              All of the above. Communist child terrorists smuggling drugs over the border. Oh and they're illegal immigrants too.

            • Republicans don't like children?
              why aren't they extinct?

        • by Synerg1y (2169962)

          Well I'm still waiting for that space shuttle from them...

    • by Surt (22457)

      Can you name a show in which the tractor beam was not depicted as a ray of light?

      • by fyngyrz (762201)

        Can you provide a reference that the visible light was depicted as the effective mechanism, rather than as a side effect?

        • by Chris Burke (6130)

          Can you provide a reference that the visible light was depicted as the effective mechanism, rather than as a side effect?

          First filter criterion: Does the show depict laser beams as visible from any direction in space?

          • by fyngyrz (762201)

            0th filter criterion: does the show claim that the beams in question are lasers?

            • by Chris Burke (6130)

              Naw, I wouldn't make that a filter criterion at all, because even if they weren't explicitly stated to be lasers, one could hypothetically deduce this from other clues. So while it would make a good point of discussion, it doesn't serve as a good filter.

              The point of the 1st Filter was that if they show things that are supposed to be lasers, but are visible from any angle in space, then there's no point in further investigation. Because in that universe/the writers' heads, a "laser" is the thing what makes

              • by fyngyrz (762201)

                Nope, they aren't lasers, and that's why your entire perception is wrongheaded. It's your head that's telling you lasers. The writers, in fact, told you differently -- they said "tractor beam", which is, as we know, not a laser. They said "Phaser", which is also not a laser. In *fact*, if you'll recall, there have been episodes where the *opponent* used "LASERs". much to the amusement of the trek crew... but thanks for playing! :o)

                • by Chris Burke (6130)

                  LOL. It's your head that's telling you that we're suddenly only talking about Star Trek even though it's not been mentioned specifically at any point in the sequence of comments leading up to this point and the original thread establishing the context of "any show". It's also your head that's telling you that I'm only talking about "lasers that are tractor beams".

                  I'm talking about any show and I'm talking about lasers in said show. Whether or not the tractor beams in said shows are also lasers is the thi

        • by Surt (22457)

          I think it's fair to assume the opposite unless the show makes a direct claim to the contrary.

      • by vux984 (928602)

        Star Wars, 1977

        It was referred to as a "tractor beam", yet it was not visible light.

        Now, I'm not sure what the point of naming "Star Wars" in anything that is even slightly related to science though.

  • by spidercoz (947220) on Tuesday November 01, 2011 @05:19PM (#37912594) Journal
    Cue Congressional interference in 5...4...3...
  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Tuesday November 01, 2011 @05:23PM (#37912668)

    remotely capturing planetary or atmospheric particles and delivering them to a robotic rover or orbiting spacecraft for analysis

    Um... just brainstorming here ... Jar, lid w/spring, tether, done.

    • Yes, yes, the Russian pencil to the American's gas filled zero-gravity ball-point pen. Except that in this case possession of a so-called "tractor" beam has far broader applications in the microscopic world (possibly evolving to the macro world), in orbit and on Terra firma. Being able to move this tech beyond lab experiments to production ready technology would be a huge boon to material science for instance.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        I remember reading somewhere that the pencil vs zero-G pen is actually not that great of an example. The problem with the pencil is that both the tip (if it breaks, as pencils are prone to do, especially russian ones) and the shavings aren't really things you want floating around your spaceship cabin. Not only are they eye hazards, but the graphite tip is also conductive to some extent, which could potentially cause all sorts of fun issues if it floated its way into the electronics of a 60's era spaceship.

        T

        • Surely the metal tip of a ballpoint pen (gas propelled or otherwise) is also conductive? But point taken about the limitations of using pencils, although I would think that having a stock of short pencils with soft leads that wouldn't shatter could solve those problems quite easily.
          • by jackbird (721605)

            It's a lot harder to break the tip off a pen than a pencil, and one doesn't typically produce much dust from the tip material of a ballpoint in the course of normal use/maintenance.

          • Surely the metal tip of a ballpoint pen (gas propelled or otherwise) is also conductive? But point taken about the limitations of using pencils, although I would think that having a stock of short pencils with soft leads that wouldn't shatter could solve those problems quite easily.

            The space pen's tip is retractable, which makes it much less likely to penetrate anything. I'm not sure the Capitalist pen v. Communist pencil debate really matters much, since neither recording system has caused any issues.

            However, although I enjoy simple solutions to complex problems as much as the next nerd, an elegant, slightly-less-simple solution that provides more functionality is preferable in my estimation. The pen wins.

            On topic, I eagerly await the sorcery that will bring about a tractor beam. Per

        • I remember reading somewhere that the pencil vs zero-G pen is actually not that great of an example. The problem with the pencil is that both the tip (if it breaks, as pencils are prone to do, especially russian ones) and the shavings aren't really things you want floating around your spaceship cabin. Not only are they eye hazards, but the graphite tip is also conductive to some extent, which could potentially cause all sorts of fun issues if it floated its way into the electronics of a 60's era spaceship.

          The story is really a better illustration of how the Russians were willing to take risks to save money while the Americans were more into leaving nothing to chance.

          Once again, NASA had nothing to do with the "space pen"

          Fisher, a civilian company, decided on their own to design it. When they did, they came to NASA who decided to buy a bunch.

          Also, the Soviets didn't use graphite pencils and paper. They used Grease pencils on plastic slates.

          You are correct though, the many hazards of a wood + graphite pencil made it an impractical tool in space.

      • US and Russia used pencils, but the tips broke off, floated around and got into everything ... so they stopped, neither used space pens, it was developed by an independent US company and NASA never even used them ... , they both just use a normal ballpoints they work fine in zero gravity

        Moving atoms and single molecules around with lasers is done in labs already, the problems is that they have not worked outside labs, and only work on small numbers of atoms, and do not apply very large forces, so what e

    • by dkf (304284)

      Um... just brainstorming here ... Jar, lid w/spring, tether, done.

      You've still got to get the stuff into the jar in the first place. That's where a tractor beam would be very helpful, as the lack of gravity (well, it's there but you're in freefall) makes some things much more difficult. Being able to reel stuff in without having to get anything physical out to it in the first place would be useful. (Better yet would be if it could bring larger items in without damaging them, but even small robust stuff would be Pretty Neat.)

  • Just call R2-D2, he'll make the precise location appear on the monitor.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    someone hacks a wireless router and uses the antennae to produce a tractor beam? The "threat" of strangers reaching through the internet and tractor-beam molesting children will stop the funding pretty quickly.

  • The first method called 'optical tweezers,' in which a molecule is trapped where two beams cross

    Hey, everyone knows to never do this.

  • by Gilmoure (18428) on Tuesday November 01, 2011 @05:57PM (#37913124) Journal

    I mean, would finally be a way to get hot burritos out of the microwave safely.

  • by reve_etrange (2377702) on Tuesday November 01, 2011 @06:56PM (#37913818)
    Doesn't require an atmosphere and can be done with one beam. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_tweezers [wikipedia.org]
  • A few molecules won't be enough of a sample, and this thing won't scale much further.

  • Documentary (Score:5, Informative)

    by mevets (322601) on Tuesday November 01, 2011 @07:58PM (#37914432)

    There was a documentary on this in the 1980s where scientists were using beams to trap ghosts. Seemed to work pretty well then, I don't know why this has taken so long.

    • Re:Documentary (Score:4, Informative)

      by pipedwho (1174327) on Tuesday November 01, 2011 @10:42PM (#37915574)

      There was a documentary on this in the 1980s where scientists were using beams to trap ghosts. Seemed to work pretty well then, I don't know why this has taken so long.

      Too risky.

      Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light. Total protonic reversal. That's bad.

    • Maybe we should give those guys a call
      • Maybe we should give those guys a call

        Too late.

        Another documentary I saw showed the last surviving guy was mistaken for a zombie and shot by a kid with a shotgun. His one regret was "Garfield"

  • Why not focus on funding the construction and launching of a spacecraft worth slapping a tractor beam ON first.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Wait till 2063, then we'll have warp drive making it not ridiculous to build those space crafts.

  • No Lasers in Vacuum, it kills the sharks!

  • If you no longer believe in this technology, then you obviously suck.... because you're now an ex tractor fan.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead

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