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Scientists Successfully Propel & Levitate Objects With Light

Scientists have developed a way to leverage and propel objects using only light by creating nanosize patterns on the surfaces of objects.

Although still theoretical, work is a step toward developing a spacecraft that can reach the nearest planet beyond our solar system for 20 years, driven and accelerated by light only.

Decades ago, the development of so-called optical tweezers allowed scientists to move and manipulate small objects like nanoparticles using radiation pressure from a sharply focused beam of laser light.

This work is the basis of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018. Optical tweezers, however, can manipulate only very small objects and only very short distances.

With the new study, published in the journal Nature Photonics, objects of many different shapes and sizes – from micrometres to meters – can be manipulated with a beam of light.

The key is to create specific nano-scale patterns on the surface of the object. This modelling interacts with light in such a way that the object can handle itself when it is exciting, creating a restoring torque to keep it in the light beam.

Thus, instead of requiring highly focused laser beams, object templates are designed to "encode" their own stability. The light source can be millions of miles.

In theory, the spacecraft can be sized with nano-sized structures and accelerated by Earth's laser light. Without having to carry fuel, the spacecraft can reach very high, even relativistic speeds and probably travel to other stars.

The technology can also be used to quickly produce smaller objects such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
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