Is Star Trek's Tractor Beam Possible?

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Yesterday marked the 44th anniversary of the classic science fiction TV series Star Trek. On September 8, 1966, the first episode of Captain Kirk’s adventures aired, and over the decades some of the imagined future technologies in the Star Trek universe have actually come to life in some way, shape or form.

Now, it appears we may be a step closer to seeing another Star Trek tech come to life: the tractor beam. But don’t expect to capture a Romulan Warbird with it any time soon.

SLIDE SHOW: Science fiction story lines are also full with different time-travel methods, take a look at our top 5.

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Building a tractor beam in the lab may sound a little far-fetched, but physicists at the Australian National University have announced that they’ve built a device capable of transporting small glass particles — one hundred times the size of a bacterium — one and a half meters across a laboratory desk without touching them (pictured top). This is a huge advance considering existing “optical tweezers” can only push particles the size of a bacterium few millimeters in liquid.

How is this achieved?

In the Star Trek universe, spaceships use a “graviton beam emitter” to create a graviton interference pattern that can be manipulated to grab onto other sub-warp-speed space objects (I’ll get onto warp speed later). Alas, gravitons are hypothetical quantum particles in our universe, and the Australian researchers certainly can’t use them in their lab experiment.

Instead, they’ve built a “hollow laser” that can trap small objects inside and manipulate them.

This 21st technology creates a very thin tube of laser light with a dark core. When the glass particles are placed inside the cool core, they are kept there by the laser-heated air. Should the particles drift in any direction, they are pushed back to the center by the hot cushioning air molecules.

Now the glass particles are trapped in this hollow laser prison, they can be manipulated tractor beam-style.

The tractor beam in action in Star Trek (Paramount Pictures, source)

A small amount of laser light leaks into the cool core of the tube, exerting a small amount of pressure on the particles. The result? The particles move along the beam.

By placing another laser at the other end of the tube and adjusting the brightness of both lasers, the particles can be controlled.

Although the team were limited by the size of the optical table in the lab (1.5 meters long), Andrei Rhode, one of the researchers involved in the study, thinks particles can be transported a distance of up to 10 meters.

But you may notice a problem with this technique if you wanted to install the laser-tractor beam on the USS Enterprise. This system needs to be operated in an atmosphere, not in a vacuum — the glass particles are kept in place by laser-heated air molecules after all.

Still, there are a huge variety of applications this burgeoning tractor beam has on Earth. For one, this could be used to transport dangerous microorganisms “hands free” in biomedical facilities; a step-up from the optical tweezers already in use. It could also be used in the construction of sensitive microscopic machines.

So, will Star Trek‘s tractor beam ever be possible? Unless gravitons are discovered, it would seem this technology is unlikely at best.

However, that’s been said about another Star Trek favorite: the warp drive. Assuming the existence of dark energy, tiny extra-dimensions and a method to generate a shedload of energy, advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy thinks zipping around the cosmos at warp speed could have potential.

It’s apparent to me that a lot of people seem to want to prove why a technology is not possible, rather than think of ingenious ways to make something possible. It’s my conviction that when someone says something is “impossible,” what they really mean is “our current level of science cannot explain this, and I don’t have the motivation to explore beyond its boundaries.” –Richard Obousy

SLIDE SHOW: Warp drive propulsion may be a sci-fi favorite for the USS Enterprise to speed around the cosmos, but can the technology ever become a reality?

Image credit: Australian National University