Energy Shields and Tractor Beams

Star Trek Japan Premiere
The starship Enterprise used tractor beams and warp drive, technologies that don't yet exist. Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Science fiction stories often feature amazing futuristic technologies. The Star Trek movies and TV shows, for example, commonly show the characters using faster-than-light travel and transporter systems. They seem so effortless and easy, and such great symbols of a high-tech future. But these techno-marvels don't come easily in real life. They're going to be huge challenges to achieve with our current state of technology development.

That's not to say they won't happen. But, it's going to take time to create these wonders.

The same is true for other fantastic tools used in the SF universe. One key technology, which is used to defend starships, is a concentrated barrier known as an energy shield. As it stands now, this technology, and the similar "tractor beam", which is used to "lock on to" objects and move them with a starship, are far more advanced than anything we have in place today.

So, given that we don't yet have transporters and tractor beams, is it possible that we will someday possess them? Or, will they only exist in the world of science fiction? Interesting questions that future tech experts will work on answering.

What Are Energy Shields?

The concept of the energy shield is simple: create an energy barrier around a ship (or a space station or even a ground-based building or a city) to protect it from enemy fire.

In principle, this would be an effective means of countering energy weapons, particularly the equally intriguing photon torpedoes. 

One could imagine creating either powerful magnetic fields (which we see in nature today around our planets and in our galaxy) to deflect objects hurtling toward a spacecraft.

But, what about more advanced weaponry, such as high-powered lasers? Strong magnetic fields would have little effect against such weapons.

In order to really protect something, an actual energy barrier would have to be in place. The only problem is that we currently have no way to create such a wall of energy without using up even more energy to create it. As such, any ship equipped with such a protector would need to carry an incredible amount of fuel to power its generators.  

Energy can be transmitted in the form of light, and we can create strong electromagnetic fields, but these would still have little or no effect on projectile or energy weapons. So, until we can focus energy onto a specific point in space (and make it stop at that point), we will be unable to successfully create an energy shield like that portrayed in Star Trek.

How About Tractor Beams?

There is a similar problem with tractor beams. Mind you, they're an attractive idea. The ability to shoot a "beam" of energy at an object, take hold of it and tow it back to the ship (or some other place) is beyond anything we currently have on our ships or even on the drawing boards.

As with energy shields, a spacecraft could use electric or magnetic fields to "capture" objects and move them around.

But the idea of paralyzing a spacecraft using what appears to be a beam of light is not physically possible given our current understanding of physics.

What are the Chances of Getting Energy Shields?

Unfortunately, probably not. At least not in the ways that the technologies are portrayed in science fiction. That doesn't mean scientists aren't looking into these ideas. Everything from laser-guided weapons to warp core technology can be studied. The big barriers are really the laws of physics and the currently available materials we have to work with as we try to develop new tech.  

We are still developing our understanding of energy and how to harness it. So we could imagine that our future technological civilization could one day use pure energy as both a weapon and as a defense system. But, given what we know how to do right now, it will take quite a while to figure it out, and those future systems it will likely look quite different than how Star Trek writers have imagined them.

That's not to say they won't happen. They very likely will, but it will take a while and a lot of technological breakthroughs to make them into reality. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Millis, John P., Ph.D. "Energy Shields and Tractor Beams." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/energy-shields-and-tractor-beams-3072117. Millis, John P., Ph.D. (2017, March 2). Energy Shields and Tractor Beams. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/energy-shields-and-tractor-beams-3072117 Millis, John P., Ph.D. "Energy Shields and Tractor Beams." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/energy-shields-and-tractor-beams-3072117 (accessed December 13, 2017).