NASA is looking to turn another staple of science fiction to practical use by studying ways to make "tractor beams" a reality. While none of the technologies under the microscope will be able to transport anything the size of a modified YT-1300 Corellian freighter – at least in the short term – the researchers will examine if it is possible to trap and move planetary or atmospheric particles using laser light so they can be delivered to a robotic rover or orbiting spacecraft for analysis.
NASA says current extraterrestrial sample collection techniques, such as the aerogel used by the Stardust space probe to gather samples as it flew through the coma of comet Wild 2 or the drilling and scooping of samples by NASA’s next Mars rover, have proven successful but are limited by high costs and limited range and sample rate.
"An optical-trapping system, on the other hand, could grab desired molecules from the upper atmosphere on an orbiting spacecraft or trap them from the ground or lower atmosphere from a lander," says Principal Investigator Paul Stysley. "In other words, they could continuously and remotely capture particles over a longer period of time, which would enhance science goals and reduce mission risk."