The humble tractor beam doesn’t get nearly as much credit as the transporter and the phaser in terms of “Star Trek technology” everybody knows, but it actually turns out to be a lot more feasible than either of the other two.
Work on a tractor beam has been ongoing since the 1960s, mostly as a goofy thought experiment along the line of “Being able to drag my coworker’s car across long distances would be really funny.” Believe it or not, there’s been progress, of a sort. Russian researchers discovered in 1992 that if you put something non-magnetic over a superconducting disk, the object lost weight.
More recently, work has been on trying to invent the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, and pushing around particles. The former seems to have stalled, but the latter got a major boost recently.
Chinese researchers theorized last year that a Bessel beam, a laser that fires light in concentric rings, could force a particle to generate photons on the side away from the beam, pushing it towards the source.
Two researchers at NYU took this theory and pushed it further. They put two Bessel beams side by side and used a lens to overlap them, creating a beam with alternating patches of light and darkness.
The result? The bright patches acted like turbo boosts, pushing the particle towards the source of the beam.
It’s neat, but you have to be a little creative to think of the applications. This applies to more particles than many “tractor” beams, making it more useful in the lab. But there are plenty of other applications: For example, this would make it easier for explorers to collect samples of dust on other planets. Or, if you want to get really wacky, it could be paired with solar sails to allow spacecraft more ways to steer.
Or you could use it to play Tetris.