NASA studying ways to make ‘tractor beams’ a reality

November 1, 2011

NASA Goddard technologists are studying different techniques for corralling particles and transporting them via laser light to instruments on rovers and orbiting spacecraft (credit: Dr. Paul Stysley)

A team of NASA scientists has won funding to study the concept of Star Trek-style tractor beams — the ability to trap and move objects using laser light — for remotely capturing planetary or atmospheric particles and delivering them to a robotic rover or orbiting spacecraft for analysis.

Currently, NASA uses a variety of techniques to collect extraterrestrial samples. “These techniques have proven to be largely successful, but they are limited by high costs and limited range and sample rate,” Principal Investigator Paul 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.”