Though still theoretical, the work is a step toward developing a spacecraft that could reach the nearest planet outside of our solar system in 20 years, powered and accelerated only by light.
A paper describing the research appears online in the March 18 issue of the journal Nature Photonics. The research was done in the laboratory of Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science.
Decades ago, the development of so-called optical tweezers enabled scientists to move and manipulate tiny objects, like nanoparticles, using the radiative pressure from a sharply focused beam of laser light. This work formed the basis for the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. However, optical tweezers are only able to manipulate very small objects and only at very short distances.
Ognjen Ilic, postdoctoral scholar and the study’s first author, gives an analogy: “One can levitate a ping pong ball using a steady stream of air from a hair dryer. But it wouldn’t work if the ping pong ball were too big, or if it were too far away from the hair dryer, and so on.”