NASA is providing $100,000 for a study of "tractor beams" to gather samples for analysis in future missions. Although the press reports talk about its possible use to "capture and gather up sample material either in future orbiting spacecraft or on planetary rovers", I wonder if a more immediate application of this technology could be to tackle the problem of orbital debris? (Assuming the research is successful of course. This possible space junk app isn't mentioned, and it's way outside my technical competence, but seems like options #2 and #3 would work in principle...)
But $100,000 is not serious funding. That amount would fund a post-doc at 1/2 time for each of the three projects. Unless significantly more money is allocated, it's unlikely this will lead to anything deployable. Yes, I realize this is first-round funding. I'm just saying not to get one's hopes up for something in the medium term.
The team has identified three possible options to capture and gather up sample material either in future orbiting spacecraft or on planetary rovers. The approach could be put to use in space and on planetary surfaces.
One is an adaptation of a well-known effect called "optical tweezers" in which objects can be trapped in the focus of one or two laser beams. However, this version of the approach would require an atmosphere in which to operate.
The other two methods rely on specially shaped laser beams - instead of a beam whose intensity peaks at its centre and tails off gradually, the team is investigating two alternatives: solenoid beams and Bessel beams.
The intensity peaks within a solenoid beam are found in a spiral around the line of the beam itself, while a Bessel beam's intensity rises and falls in peaks and troughs at higher distances from the beam's line.
Solenoid beams have already proven their "tractor beam" abilities in laboratory tests published in the journal Optics Express, but the pulling power of Bessel beams, presented on the preprint server Arxiv in February, remains to be proved experimentally.
In all three cases, explained Dr Stysley, the effect is a small one - but it could in some instances outperform existing methods of sample gathering.
Update (2 Nov 2011): According to the project's Principal Investigator Paul Stysley, "The original thought was that we could use tractor beams for cleaning up orbital debris," Stysley said. "But to pull something that huge would be almost impossible -- at least now. That's when it bubbled up that perhaps we could use the same approach for sample collection."
So clearly the PIs were way ahead of me about orbital debris. An orbital debris app would come later, not first. I stand corrected.
And as for the low level of Phase 1 funding, team member Barry Coyle said, "We want to make sure we thoroughly understand these methods. We have hope that one of these will work for our purposes. Once we select a technique, we will be in position to then formulate a possible system" and compete for additional NIAC [NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts] funding to advance the technology to the next level of development. "We're at the starting gate on this," Coyle added. "This is a new application that no one has claimed yet."
This is fascinating stuff - NIAC's role in funding innovation research with long development timeframes is critical. I wish the researchers much success.