The technology could one day be used for "manipulating vehicles or aircraft on Mars."
Small But Mighty
Scientists have built a real-life tractor beam that can pull actual objects using nothing but light.
But it has one big drawback: it's absolutely tiny.
As detailed in a new paper published in the journal Optics Express and recently spotted by ScienceAlert, a team of scientists figured out how to build a new laser that can form an optical tractor beam capable of manipulating objects at a distance.
Despite its still tiny size, the new tractor beam packs a considerable punch. And though it's still small, previous iterations were smaller still.
"In previous studies, the light pulling force was too small to pull a macroscopical object," said research team member Lei Wang from QingDao University of Science and Technology in China, in a statement.
"With our new approach, the light-pulling force has a much larger amplitude," he added. "In fact, it is more than three orders of magnitudes larger than the light pressure used to drive a solar sail, which uses the momentum of photons to exert a small pushing force."
Scientists were able to bend special composite structures made out of graphene and silicon dioxide with the use of a laser.
The laser caused the far side of the composite structure to heat up and release gas molecules, which caused the structure to bend toward the light.
"Our technique provides a non-contact and long-distance pulling approach, which may be useful for various scientific experiments," Wang said in the statement.
According to the researcher, it may prove especially useful in some unexpected places as well.
"The rarefied gas environment we used to demonstrate the technique is similar to what is found on Mars," Wang added. "Therefore, it might have the potential for one day manipulating vehicles or aircraft on Mars."
That may sound far like a stretch, but NASA did in fact investigate back in 2011 whether similar tractor beams could be used to gather Mars samples, as ScienceAlert points out.
For now, the tiny tractor beam is only a proof of concept. Before it can be practical, Wang and his colleagues still have to figure out the exact relationship between the power of the laser and the pulling force, while also making it work in a larger variety of atmospheric conditions.
But it's nonetheless a fascinating glimpse of a piece of science fiction taking a tiny step toward reality.
READ MORE: Scientists Have Built a Macroscopic Tractor Beam Using Laser Light [ScienceAlert]