NASA may soon use tractor beams for future missions, so rovers can scoop up extraterrestrial particles. With $100,000 in funding, NASA scientists will see if any one of three laser-based methods could be used to grab particles in space and bring them to Earth.
In the laboratory, tractor beams have been known to trap and move objects with a laser. While tractor breams are popular in fantasy worlds like Star Trek, NASA scientists haven’t really explored the possible applications, until now.
“Though a mainstay in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, laser-based trapping isn’t fanciful or beyond current technological know-how,” NASA Office of the Chief Technologist Paul Stysley said in a statement.
NASA originally thought that they’d use laser beams to get rid of space junk, which keeps on accumulating - and is a known problem.
“But to pull something that huge would be almost impossible — at least now. That’s when it bubbled up that perhaps we could use the same approach for sample collection,” Stysley added.
NASA scientists are trying out three laser-based methods:
- optical tweezers: This first method uses two laser beams to trap particles in the core of overlapping laser beams. An opposing beam creates a ring shape and traps particles inside the ring’s center.
- optical solenoid beams: This method would pull particle matter back along the laser beam. This method depends on electromagnetic effects and is supposed to work in a space vacuum.
- Bessel beam: This method works in theory like a pebble thrown into a pond, where ripples are sent through. It depends on a laser beam that sends electric and magnetic fields in the path of the object.
The lasers could allow NASA missions to collect samples from the atmosphere of far off places like Mars. It can also be used to grab particles passing by as comets.
More traditional ways of scooping up extraterrestrial particles involve a more hands-on approach. For instance, NASA plans on taking samples from the Martian surface and analyzing them on-spot for its upcoming rover, Curiosity.
There’s a video that shows the laser beam plan in action. It’s worth watching.