Tractor beams are a logical concept as matter and energy have multiple interactions in the universe. The natural forces of magnetism and gravity also have the ability to pull objects together, which is similar to how tractor beams work.
Tractor beams are devices that can move objects from a distance. The idea for tractor beams originated from a science fiction story called SpaceHounds of IPC written in 1931. In the story, there is mention of “lifting or tractor rays” and other fictional civilizations that possess the technology.
In science fiction, tractor beams are a common technology and it is credited to the popularity of shows like Star Trek and Star Wars for the proliferation of the idea.
Tractor beams are not only a science fiction concept, but they also exist in the form of microscopic tractor beams known as optical tweezers. These devices use lasers to move tiny objects such as atoms and nanoparticles and are used in various fields such as biology, nanotechnology and medicine.
While these microscopic tractor beams can move small objects, they are not strong enough to pull larger objects.
Recently, a team of researchers have successfully demonstrated a macroscopic tractor beam, which is capable of moving larger objects. The details of this research have been published in the journal Optics Express, with the title “Macroscopic laser pulling based on the Knudsen force in rarefied gas” and the lead author is Lei Wang from QingDao University of Science and Technology in China.
The lead author of the research, Lei Wang, states that “In previous studies, the light-pulling force was too small to pull a macroscopical object.”
The researchers have developed a new approach to create a macroscopic tractor beam that has a much larger amplitude, more than three orders of magnitude larger than the light pressure used to drive a solar sail.
However, the macroscopic tractor beam only works under specific laboratory conditions, it’s a demonstration and not a practical application yet.
The tractor beam works only on specially made macroscopic graphene-SiO2 composite objects that the researchers built specifically for the experiments.
It works only in a rarefied gaseous environment with lower pressure than Earth’s atmosphere. The limit their effectiveness on Earth, but other worlds may have different atmospheric pressures.
The researchers believe that the technique has potential for various scientific experiments and that the non-contact and long-distance pulling approach could be used for manipulating vehicles or aircraft on planets like Mars.
The device works by heating the composite objects with a laser, where one side is hotter than the other. The gas molecules on the back side receive more energy which pulls the object, combined with the lower pressure in the rarefied gas environment, the object moves.
To demonstrate the laser-pulling phenomenon, the researchers built a torsional pendulum device made of the composite structure and used another device to measure the effect.
The researchers have found that the pulling force produced by their new macroscopic tractor beam is more than three orders of magnitude larger than the light pressure. The force can also be adjusted by changing the laser power.
NASA had considered using tractor beams to gather samples with the Mars rover, Curiosity. NASA wondered if a tractor beam could draw tiny particles from vaporized samples for more complete study.
However, NASA’s idea to include tractor beam technology in the rover never materialized.
The new research produced interesting results, but it is not yet practical. A lot of work and engineering is needed before it can be practical.
The researchers are aware that there needs to be a well-understood theoretical underpinning that describes how the effect works on objects with different sizes, shapes, and in different atmospheres.
The study is an effective demonstration of feasibility and shows the complexity of laser-matter interactions and that many phenomena are not yet understood on both macro and micro scales.
The study expanded the scope of optical pulling from microscale to macroscale which has great potential in macroscale optical manipulations.
Tractor beams in reality could be valuable scientific tools, unlike the portrayal in science fiction as weapons in combat and conflict.
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