How to Build a Tractor Beam

Hello, Intertubes! I have been slacking off on the blog in favor of preparing my dissertation and the presentation for my defense. I know, excuses, excuses…

To keep all eighteen of my intrepid readers happy, here is a video that recently went up on my lab group’s YouTube channel:

That’s me demonstrating the physical principles that could be used to make a real-life tractor beam that can push, pull, and manipulate spacecraft. The device would work by pumping changing magnetic fields at a target spacecraft, exciting eddy currents in the spacecraft’s aluminum skin. These currents interact with the magnetic field from the tractor beam device, allowing it to push, pull, or rotate the target.

In the video, I generate these changing magnetic fields by moving a big rare-earth magnet around. On a spacecraft, a more likely tractor beam device would be a set of electromagnet coils. I calculated that, with reasonable power requirements, such a device could exert ion-engine-scale forces on a target several meters away. More powerful electromagnets would increase that range.

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