Tractor Beam: NASA Developing Science Fiction Technology To Collect Extraterrestrial Samples (VIDEO)
The term "tractor beam" may conjure images of a giant laser pulling Han Solo's Millenium Falcon into the Death Star in 1977's "A New Hope".
But these days, tractor beam technology isn't limited to Star Wars.
NASA announced on Monday that it had awarded three scientists $100,000 to study the use of light beams to gather atmospheric or planetary particles, like molecules, cells and viruses, for analysis. Or, simply put, to study tractor beams.
"Though a mainstay in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, laser-based trapping isn't fanciful or beyond current technological know-how," said Paul Stysley, the project's principal investigator, according to NASA's press release.
NASA in the past has used spacecraft, such as the Stardust in 1999, to take samples from space. Curiosity, NASA's next Mars rover, which is scheduled to launch November 25, will take core and surface samples from the red planet and analyze them in lab on the rover.
Stysley said that using optical methods could be cheaper and could allow researchers to take samples from earth's upper atmosphere.
At first, the team thought they could use the tractor beam technology to clean up orbital debris, or space junk -- man-made objects orbiting the earth that are no longer being used. These range in size from old satellites to flecks of paint. According to NASA, there are over 22,000 pieces of orbital debris that measure 4-inches or larger.
"But to pull something that huge would be almost impossible -- at least now," Stysley said in the NASA statement. "That's when it bubbled up that perhaps we could use the same approach for sample collection."
The team plans to study three methods that could use tractor beams to gather extraterrestrial samples.
One method, called "optical tweezers," uses two beams of light that overlap and rotate in different directions to create a sort of ring. Particles are then trapped in a vortex, the area where the beams overlap. When the intensity of one of the beams is changed, the surrounding air temperature changes, and particles move though the center of the ring.
NASA notes, however, that in order for this method to work, atmosphere must be present.
According to Wired, the "optical tweezers" method is typical in labs. In fact, optics researchers at the Universities of Glasgow and Bristol developed an iPad app that uses optical tweezers laser technology that allows users to manipulate microscopic particles, Popular Science reports. (Check out the Popular Science article for a video of the app in action).
Another approach uses solenoid beams to create a spiral that will pull particles back toward the light source. Unlike the "optical tweezers" method, NASA says, this type of tractor beam relies on electromagnetic principles, and since it doesn't need atmosphere, it could take samples from areas without air, like planetary moons.
A third method is only theoretical at this point, but uses a Bessel beam, which surrounds a particle with "ripples" of light and uses electric and magnetic fields to pull objects along the beam.
"We have hope that one of these will work for our purposes," said Barry Coyle, one of the researchers on the team. "We're at the starting gate on this...This is a new application that no one has claimed yet."
Alex Knapp at Forbes suggests that eventually, this type of technology could be brought to the consumer level. "Afterall, if you can use a beam of light to gather dust into a Mars rover, why not a beam of light to suck dirt out of your carpet?" he asks. "Or to clean your air vents?"
WATCH: Making 'Tractor Beams' A Reality (Eventually): A NASA animation of how a mission might eventually use tractor beam technology.