NASA investigating tractor beam technology

While hit sci-fi movies and TV shows have seen most of their future-tech become reality in the past few decades, one piece of technology that has yet to really see the light of day is tractor beams.That could all be about to change, though.

NASA is now funding a study to investigate if tractor beam technology can be used to gather samples on future space missions. Potentially this would allow for much fewer moving parts on sample collecting probes, which makes for far fewer problems: at least that's the theory.

There have been several tractor beam technologies discussed in previous years, as there is some contention about how to go about it. However, they all utilise the other staple of sci-fi dreams, lasers. It's three of these laser based tractor beams that NASA is investigating with their study, putting $100,000 into it.

The first method has a major drawback in that it requires an atmosphere, making it useless on outcrops like our own moon. Contary to everything we learned in Ghostbusters, it works by crossing two laser beams which traps particles at the point that they do so.

The second and third methods rely on specially shaped laser beams, where the intensity of a beam is focused at the centre, reducing at either end. However, these aren't the only options out there, just more the traditional ones. There are two other possibilities, known as solenoid and Bessel beams, which work slightly differently, the former having a a spiral peak intensity and the latter more of a peak and trough intensity.

Solenoid beams have so far been given the seal of approval as a working tractor beam after being tested under laboratory conditions, but Bessel beams have yet to be fully tested.