Researchers Invent Star Trek's Tractor Beam

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News Posted: Mon, Jan 28 2013 2:59 PM
Nobody’s going to be pulling enemy star fighters into a mothership Star Trek-style anytime soon, but researchers at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and the Institute of Scientific Instruments (ISI, Czech Republic) have developed a tractor beam--or at least an experimental version of the concept.

Basically, they figured out how to make an optical field that allows them to reverse the normal forward-moving radiation pressure of light to create a negative force that pulls particles instead of pushing them.

This step forward opens the door for relatively inexpensive devices that can sort macromolecules, organelles, and cells through a process that we understand is called optical fractionation. Even more noteworthy is that because apparently optical particle manipulation and acoustic article manipulation are very similar, tractor beam technology could be used in fields other than photonics, such as biomedicine.

tractor beam technology
Tractor beam schematic

It’s amazing how science fiction points toward technologies of the future that eventually become real. In this case, maybe it’s a case of recursive science fiction wherein Gene Roddenberry time traveled to 2023 and then back to 1987 and wrote his series based on what he saw in the future. (Or did the tractor beam first appear in the original 1966 Star Trek? Trekkers and/or Trekkies, help us out here.)
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Dave_HH replied on Mon, Jan 28 2013 3:30 PM

My brain hurts now after reading this but that's pretty awesome.

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I can't wait until we all get to carry around flashlight-sized tractor beams in our pockets.

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rapid1 replied on Mon, Jan 28 2013 8:58 PM

Yup Paul think about this if you picked up a weight reducing 300 pound object with said flashlight sized tractor beam would it be heavy to you or not, could you throw it or would it flip you over? I bet that's why Dave's brains hurting right now!

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JDiaz replied on Tue, Jan 29 2013 12:11 PM

Quote, "Or did the tractor beam first appear in the original 1966 Star Trek? Trekkers and/or Trekkies, help us out here."

Yes, tractor beams were first used in the original series... "Space Seed," used to tow Khan's Noonien Singh's ship, "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," Enterprise tried to capture Captain John Christopher's 20th century F-104 Starfighter jet (Bluejay 4), "Doomsday Machine," the doomsday machine kept on tractoring things into its maw... including trying to draw in the Enterprise, "The Immunity Syndrome," Enterprise used it to tow the shuttle craft Spock was on as they escaped the space amoeba... along with various instances of docking shuttle crafts... Pretty much every time a ship was towed or the Enterprise trapped by some invisible force it was a tractor beam...

Original series just never had a visual effect for it until they later digitally remastered it...

Though the explanation of how they worked, along with other Star Trek invented tech ideas, came later and mostly during the STTNG period when people really started taking the concepts as possible and not just entertainment.

In Sci-Fi though, the concept goes back much further... Like "Skylark of Space" (1929) had attractor and repellor beams. So it's a pretty old concept...

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scolaner replied on Thu, Jan 31 2013 10:55 AM

This guy...this is the guy. Thanks for the info!

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