The Death Star in "Star Wars" reeled in space ships with "tractor beams." So did Captain Kirk's USS Enterprise on "Star Trek."
Now NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, aims to develop a real tractor beam, but on a much smaller scale.
Here's the concept: Unmanned space probes might use laser beam technology to catch tiny particles several meters away and pull them into the probe for analysis.
Technically, the idea isn't called a "tractor beam" - scientists know it as "optical trapping." Its beginnings date back to the 1970s, according to NASA's Paul Stysley and Barry Coyle. They, along with colleague Demetrios Poulios, have been given $100,000 to begin the first phase toward developing the technology.
The project started when Stysley, Coyle and Poulios heard that scientists had successfully manipulated laser beams to pull particles back in the direction of a laser beam. "It caught our attention," said Coyle.
So the trio walked down the hall from their Greenbelt offices to speak with scientists working on NASA's upcoming unmanned missions to the Red Planet, the ExoMars orbiter and the Mars Science Laboratory.
"We asked if they'd be interested in this in the future - and they didn't laugh at us," joked Coyle. " Now we're collaborating with them on applications and what kinds of particles we can use."
There are three basic techniques the trio is interested in exploring: radiation waves, pressure from particles of light called photons, and coordinating two laser beams in a circular pattern.
The technology might help NASA reduce risk to its missions. For example, a NASA satellite equipped with a tractor beam could study a comet without flying dangerously close. "You could follow your target and, from a distance, bring in those particles," said Stysley. "It's less risky than landing on the comet or flying through a stream of stuff that could damage the satellite."
On the surface of a planet, where a NASA robot might use a drill to take rock samples, a tractor beam could eliminate the possibility of breaking a drill bit, Stysley said, because no drilling would be required. The tractor beam would simply pull tiny particles of the rock into the robot for analysis. Also, a tractor beam could significantly increase the number of samples that a robot could gather.
The project was chosen as part of the reestablished NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program aimed at spurring revolutionary space technologies.
Still in its initial stages of development, the scientists said it's way too early to know if the technology is practical, but "if everything works according to plan - that's 10 years away, give or take."
Stysley and Coyle admitted they were fans of both "Star Wars" and "Star Trek."
"We'd be lying if we said they didn't inspires us to come to NASA and work on this sort of stuff," said Stysley. "It's fun having a chance to make science fiction into reality."