The Spirit of Trek – Tricks of Light

By Mike Medeiros

Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision by discovering how its messages have started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. This week, we’ll be looking at some of the work scientists at NASA and elsewhere in the world are doing with photons and how they can be used to move objects. Specifically, we’re going to be looking at tractor beams and solar sails, a couple of technologies seen many times in Star Trek, along with a few other interesting developments when it comes to photons and light.

Before we begin, we should probably explain what light is. Light is made up of a particle, known as a photon. It is a quantum particle of electromagnetic energy traveling at a constant speed of 299, 792 kilometers (186,282 miles) per second. It is believed that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, but scientists at Cern have recorded certain neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light. Although, the claim has not yet passed scrutiny by the rest of the scientific community, it is currently being tested by researchers in America and Japan. If it is proved to be correct, the discovery will shake the foundation of our current understanding of physics as established by Einstein’s theory of special relativity.


Another interesting development that I came across during the research for this article was a 2011 announcement that MIT’s Media Lab had developed a virtual slow motion camera capable of capturing images of photons moving through space. The camera uses an array of sensors and mirrors to snap a one dimensional image every trillionth of a second. When the images are combined into a movie, we can watch light traveling through space, and bouncing around the inside of a Coca-Cola bottle. The researchers are optimistic that the technology could one day lead to advancements in chemistry, medicine, manufacturing, and photography. And, it’s all done with light and mirrors.

In the Deep Space Nine episode “Explorers,” Sisko built a replica of a Bajoran Light Ship – essentially, it’s a spacecraft propelled by massive solar sails – and used it prove that Bajoran explorers could have reached  Cardassia without the use of warp drive, 800 years earlier. Taken from the pages of science fiction and Star Trek, NASA has started developing its own solar sails with the intent of creating a spacecraft propelled by nothing more than the power of our nearest star – the sun.

In the late part of 2010, NASA launched the FASTSAT with several experiments onboard, including NanoSail-D. After a few issues and delays, the NanoSail unfurled its massive solar sail. Photons from the sun struck the massive solar fabric and propelled the spacecraft around the Earth. This wasn’t the first time a solar sail was used. Japan’s IKAROS probe deployed a solar sail to fly to Venus in 2010. Later this decade, JAXA  is planning to launch another craft on a mission to Jupiter with a solar sail.

With the solar sail, we are able to see how light can be used to push an object through space.  But, another research project currently being pursued using light is looking to attract objects to it. That’s right, researchers at the Institute of Scientific Instruments in the Czech Republic and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland are working to create Star Trek’s infamous tractor beam.

The research team behind this project spent several years trying to find the proper configuration of light particles to produce the desired effect of attracting an object. In their testing, their tractor beam was very selective and could be used to pick up specific particles, and once perfected could one day be used to remove white blood cells from a blood sample as an example. Although current experiments have been performed using microscopic particles, the energy requirements for moving large objects offers a number of issues that must be solved before the tractor beam can be installed on our starship.

Currently, the tractor beam uses a lot of power to move microscopic objects. Scaled upwards to the macroscopic, the energy requirement grows significantly with it. Then, there is the issue in regards to the transfer of energy. On large scale applications, the tractor beam would produce massive amounts of heat on the object in question, and it’s unlikely any craft could survive being trapped in a tractor beam for long. So, for the time being, it is more likely that the technology will produce optical tweezers than a working tractor beam, capable of towing distressed starships out of the path of asteroids.

There are still a number of hurdles that must be overcome before tractor beams can be installed on every starship in the fleet and used to save ships in distress. However, we’ll most likely see them on the operating table long before then. Researchers and scientists working on projects like these are keeping the Spirit of Trek alive and well by bringing Star Trek’s future technology to us today. One day, humanity will live up to its potential and will go forth into the galaxy to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations. And, if we encounter a ship in distress, we can rest at ease knowing that we won’t have to wait until next Tuesday for our tractor beam to be installed.

The time has come to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and prosper.

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