Researchers from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the Institute of Scientific Instruments (ISI) in the Czech Republic have created a real-life tractor beam like the one popularized in Star Trek.
The beam of light reverses the radiation force that normally pushes away objects such as the tail of a comet, which always points away from the sun.
The technique works in liquids and a vacuum like space but unlike its fictional counterpart, this tractor beam only works on microscopic objects says lead researcher Dr. Tomas Cizmar, research fellow in the School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews.
“Unfortunately there is a transfer of energy,” Cizmar explains. “On a microscopic scale that is OK, but on a macro scale it would cause huge problems. It would result in a massive amount of heating of an object, like a space shuttle. So trapping a space ship is out of the question.”
The discovery is more likely to be applied to inner space.
“The practical applications could be very great, very exciting,” says Cizmar. “The tractor beam is very selective in the properties of the particles it acts on, so you could pick up specific particles in a mixture. Eventually this could be used to separate white blood cells, for example.”