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Tractor Beam: NYU Physicists Build Real-Life Working Model Of Sci-Fi Staple

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Two physicists from NYU have proposed how a working tractor beam might be assembled. This is a publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program
Two physicists from NYU have proposed how a working tractor beam might be assembled. This is a publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program "Star Trek."

"Star Trek" may have predicted the iPad and the iPhone, but who would have thought scientists could actually build a working tractor beam?

New York University physicists David Ruffner and David Grier have proposed how a working tractor beam might be assembled, according to a written statement. (For those who aren't fans of the science fiction franchise, a tractor beam is a device that uses energy to pull an object toward itself.)

Ruffner and Grier built on previous work with Bessel beams, a type of laser that directs light in concentric circles rather than as a single point, and are capable of reconstructing themselves on the other side of an object.

To create the tractor beam, the physicists overlapped two Bessel beams using a lens. When directed onto an object (in this case, 1.5-micrometer silica sphere suspended in water), the combined beam acted as a kind of conveyor belt that moved the tiny particle back toward the beam's source.

Got all that?

Co-author Grier explains:

One way to describe this is that the combined beam is sort of like a wave (of intensity) on top of a wave (of light). The light wave travels downstream, just as light does. The intensity wave on top travels back toward the source and carries illuminated objects with it. A trapped particle is much like a surfer riding the intensity wave back up the light wave.

Upgrading the device to move large objects -- a Borg cube or a Klingon Bird of Prey, for instance -- is impractical, since far more energy would be required. In fact, so much energy would be required that the object being moved would be destroyed.

"But the research does suggest that such a device might be feasible, according to the statement.

How might such a device be used? Well, aside from being a must-have feature on some future smartphone (or tricorder, perhaps), the tractor beam could possibly be used for sample-gathering space rovers. In fact, last year NASA funded a $100,000 study of tractor beams with that goal in mind.

In the meantime, Beta Beat's Jessica Roy echos our general sentiment about the possibilities: "Eeeeeee!"

Ruffner's and Grier's research was recently published in "Physical Review Letters." Read more about the research on David Grier's page.

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