Could Star Trek’s Tractor Beam Become a Reality?

Fans celebrated the 49th anniversary of the “Star Trek” TV premiere this month, and now they have another reason to rejoice. A piece of “Star Trek” technology could finally be making its way into reality.  

As outlandish as it may sound, the tractor beam is upon us; but it won’t be pulling in spaceships—yet.

A company from Los Gatos, California is reaching for the satellites, figuratively and literally. Arx Pax, the company that gave us Marty McFly’s hoverboard, has partnered with NASA to build a “space tractor beam.”

The tractor beam will be using Magnetic Field Architecture, or as others would call it, magnetic levitation. This simply means the tractor beam will be using electromagnetic energy to attract or repel objects. This is the same technlology that powered the real version of the hoverboard in “Back to the Future,” where electromagnets create a magnetic field that generates lift, pushing the board off the ground.

This time, the technology will be used for another purpose. “Likely uses for this technology include manipulating various types of objects at a distance without touching them or colliding with them,” said Arx Pax co-founder and CEO Greg Henderson. “One example could be moving an object, like a satellite, or holding it stationary without physical contact.”

Specifically, the tech will be used on CubeSats. What are CubeSats? These are tiny satellites measuring 10 square centimeters. They are used by NASA, companies, universities, and nonprofits for weather observation, earth imaging and equipment testing, among many other functions.

To illustrate better, Forbes says Arx Pax’s tractor beam can be used to allow these microsatellites to fly in a controlled formation to increase their capacity to collect data. It may also be used to solve the problem of space debris by diverting any debris that is found to be on a collision path with a spacecraft. It has potential to be used for other non-space purposes, too, like low-gravity simulation and mobility solutions for clean laboratories, adds Henderson.

It all looks promising, except we still have a question. Could this finally be the giant leap into the future that we’ve been waiting for? Or, phrased another way: Will we ever actually succeed in making a real tractor beam—one powerful enough to haul things through space?

The best answer we have is that many scientists are working on doing just that. This seems to be the closest we’ve come so far.

But Ian O’Neill, who has a Ph.D in Solar Physics and an M.Phys in Astrophysics, says, “Unless gravitons are discovered, it would seem this technology is unlikely at best.” Sorry, Trekkies. The true depths of the final frontier remain out of our reach for now.

Whatever the prognosis on our journey to go where no man has gone before, one thing is clear: “Star Trek” has been and continues to be a major influence on those working to advance science and technology. In fact,  the beam isn’t the only piece of tech drawn from the screen into reality. Today, technology exists that is comparable to such recognizable gadgets as those ever-present communicators, or even Geordie Laforge’s visor.

Still, some fans remain bitter and unsatisfied with this new tractor beam. They’re still waiting for the replicator.


What other future technologies do you wish were real? 




Juvy Garcia
Juvy Garcia
Juvy is a freelance proofreader, copy editor and writer. A nice little nook with a good book would be ideal. But concocting plans for her next drawing or DIY project will suffice while she's still busy babysitting two daughters. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on Google+.