World’s first sonic tractor beam lifts objects using sound waves

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Sussex, in collaboration with Ultrahaptics, have built the world’s first sonic tractor beam that can lift and move objects using sound waves.

Details of the device, published in Nature Communications, describe how the tractor beam uses high-amplitude sound waves to generate an acoustic hologram that is capable of picking up and moving small objects. The technique comes straight from the pages of a science-fiction novel.

“It was an incredible experience the first time we saw the object held in place by the tractor beam,” said Asier Marzo, PhD student and the lead author of the study.

The tractor beam works by using 64 miniature loudspeakers to create high-pitch and high-intensity sound waves. The resulting waves surround the object with sound and this creates a force field that keeps the object in place. By carefully controlling the output of the loudspeakers the object can be either be held in place, moved or rotated.

Sriram Subramanian, professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex and co-founder of Ultrahaptics, which is also working on using ultrasound to bring touch to virtual reality, explained: “In our device we manipulate objects in mid-air and seemingly defy gravity. Here we individually control dozens of loudspeakers to tell us an optimal solution to generate an acoustic hologram that can manipulate multiple objects in real-time without contact.”

Images courtesy of Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater and Sriram Subramanian © 2015

Images courtesy of Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater and Sriram Subramanian © 2015

The researchers hope the tractor beam can be developed to serve a wide range of applications. They describe how the current device could be used to transport delicate objects and assemble them, without the need for physical contact, or a miniature version could grip and transport drug capsules or microsurgical instruments through living tissue.

Depending on the desired application the research team have developed three different shapes of tractor beams. The first is an acoustic force field that resembles a pair of fingers or tweezers. The second is an acoustic vortex, the objects becoming stuck-in and then trapped at the core and the third is best described as a high-intensity cage that surrounds the objects and holds them in place from all directions.

Although the concept of an acoustic force field has long been envisioned by scientists, engineers and science-fiction writers, this breakthrough represents the first realised version of a sonic tractor beam that can lift and move objects using sound waves.

Previous work on acoustic studies had to surround the object with loudspeakers, which limits the extent of movement and restricts many applications.

Last year, the University of Dundee presented the concept of a tractor beam but no objects were held in the ray.

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Juno mission: Jupiter’s magnetic field is even weirder than expected

It has long been known that Jupiter has the most intense magnetic field in the solar system, but the first round of results from NASA’s Juno mission has revealed that it is far stronger and more misshapen than scientists predicted.

Announcing the findings of the spacecraft’s first data-collection pass, which saw Juno fly within 2,600 miles (4,200km) of Jupiter on 27th August 2016, NASA mission scientists revealed that the planet far surpassed the expectations of models.

Measuring Jupiter’s magnetosphere using Juno’s magnetometer investigation (MAG) tool, they found that the planet’s magnetic field is even stronger than models predicted, at 7.766 Gaus: 10 times stronger than the strongest fields on Earth.

Furthermore, it is far more irregular in shape, prompting a re-think about how it could be generated.

“Juno is giving us a view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator and magnetic field investigation lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“Already we see that the magnetic field looks lumpy: it is stronger in some places and weaker in others.

An enhanced colour view of Jupiter’s south pole. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gabriel Fiset. Featured image courtesy of NASA/SWRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran

At present, scientists cannot say for certain why or how Jupiter’s magnetic field is so peculiar, but they do already have a theory: that the field is not generated from the planet’s core, but in a layer closer to its surface.

“This uneven distribution suggests that the field might be generated by dynamo action closer to the surface, above the layer of metallic hydrogen,” said Connerney.

However, with many more flybys planned, the scientists will considerable opportunities to learn more about this phenomenon, and more accurately pinpoint the bizarre magnetic field’s cause.

“Every flyby we execute gets us closer to determining where and how Jupiter’s dynamo works,” added Connerney.

With each flyby, which occurs every 53 days, the scientists are treated to a 6MB haul of newly collected information, which takes around 1.5 days to transfer back to Earth.

“Every 53 days, we go screaming by Jupiter, get doused by a fire hose of Jovian science, and there is always something new,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

A newly released image of Jupiter’s stormy south pole. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

An unexpected magnetic field was not the only surprise from the first data haul. The mission also provided a first-look at Jupiter’s poles, which are unexpectedly covered in swirling, densely clustered storms the size of Earth.

“We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole,” said Bolton. “We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another?”

Juno’s Microwave Radiometer (MWR) also threw up some surprises, with some of the planet’s belts appearing to penetrate down to its surface, while others seem to evolve into other structures. It’s a curious phenomenon, and one which the scientists hope to better explore on future flybys.

“On our next flyby on July 11, we will fly directly over one of the most iconic features in the entire solar system – one that every school kid knows – Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Bolton.

“If anybody is going to get to the bottom of what is going on below those mammoth swirling crimson cloud tops, it’s Juno and her cloud-piercing science instruments.”