Put ‘er here, R2.
Fans of intergalactic exploration both real and fictional, rejoice: Future NASA missions may incorporate tractor beams, lasers that can pick up objects at a distance. “We’re caught in a tractor beam and it’s pulling us in!” is a long way off, but NASA has just awarded a team of scientists $100,000 to explore three different methods of trapping objects with laser light and reeling them in.
Dust, rather than Corellian light freighters, are the objects in question: the hope is to use tractor beam tech to collect atmospheric particles or grab dust from a planet’s surface without resorting to using a drill, as the Mars rovers have. And indeed, one of the three methods—optical tweezers—has been used by biologists for decades to hold microscopic particles, including viruses and bacteria, in place for experiments.
The challenge will be developing techniques that will work in all the different environments that an exploratory craft might explore. Optical tweezers won’t work in the vacuum of space, for example, but could be useful on a planet with an atmosphere. The other techniques, which use solenoid beams and Bessel beams, could work at a variety of distances and perhaps without an atmosphere—the NASA team will spend the next decade or so exploring how they might be developed and incorporated.