Tractor beams the ability to trap and move objects using laser light -- are the stuff of science fiction, but a team of NASA scientists has won funding to study the concept for remotely capturing planetary or atmospheric particles and delivering them to a robotic rover or orbiting spacecraft for analysis.
The NASA Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) has awarded Principal Investigator Paul Stysley and team members Demetrios Poulios and Barry Coyle at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., $100,000 to study three experimental methods for corralling particles and transporting them via laser light to an instrument -- akin to a vacuum using suction to collect and transport dirt to a canister or bag. Once delivered, an instrument would then characterize their composition.
"Though a mainstay in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, laser-based trapping isn't fanciful or beyond current technological know-how," Stysley said. The team has identified three different approaches for transporting particles, as well as single molecules, viruses, ribonucleic acid, and fully functioning cells, using the power of light.