Bill Varie/Corbis

A laser moves tiny spheres of polystyrene floating in water. Bill Varie/Corbis

In space opera, it's not uncommon for the hero's ship to be snagged by a tractor beam that pulls him towards the enemy -- think of the famous scene in Star Wars where Darth Vader's Death Star captures Hans Solo's spaceship, the Millennium Falcon in an invisible grasp. Scientists have now made a real tractor beam, that while not capable of snaring spacecraft yet, is able to tug on tiny particles.

Pavel Zemanek and his colleagues at the Institute of Scientific Instruments of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic built a laser that moves tiny spheres of polystyrene floating in water. Changing the way the light is polarized changes the direction the spheres move. They also found that at certain sizes, the spheres arrange themselves into neat rows as they move, bound by the light itself.

PHOTOS: Top 5 Scariest Bioweapons

"We used a relatively simple setup easily adaptable to any optical microscope and found that it works!" Zemanek told Discovery News via email. In fact Zemanek said it was so simple, one could build the tractor beam setup. All you'd need is a good microscope, a laser, tiny styrofoam balls and distilled water.

This kind of 'tractor beam' can't be scaled up to spaceships – the laser power needed to do that would end up vaporizing the intended target. But the beam could be used to assemble parts in very small robots, move around tiny particles in laboratory experiments and advance medical diagnostics.

"NASA also is actively investigating possible uses of optical tractor beams for sampling comet tails and planet surfaces. What the present paper makes clear is that tractor-beam technology also opens new avenues for lab-on-a-chip material processing that could be very useful for medical diagnostics and related applications," said David Grier, a professor of physics at New York University. Grier wasn't involved in this study.

ANALYSIS: Lasers Defend Against Pirates

Scientists have known for a century that light exerts pressure. About a decade ago, theoretical calculations showed that a particle could move against the direction of a light beam, but no one had demonstrated it in the real world without using a complex arrangement of lenses and mirrors.

Zemanek and his team got it to work using laser beams and a simple setup.

Two laser beams intersect and their photons kick back tiny spheres, moving the spheres up toward the light source.Pavel Zemanek/Institute of Scientific Instruments of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

They fired a laser through a lens, which then went to a mirror that bounced the beam back. The reflected beam interfered with the incoming beam. Meanwhile, the scientists suspended polystyrene spheres in water directly in the path of the laser beams. The beams held the spheres in place vertically, and any pulling or pushing force moved the spheres to the left or to the right.

The effect worked because the particles were small enough to scatter photons of light. The photons got pushed ahead of the particles and since the photons had momentum, the particles got a slight kick backwards.

Grier, who has himself experimented with tractor beams ( , noted that this is the first time anyone has shown that the pulling force was due to the scattering and that you could use it to manipulate objects this way. "It's just a beautifully clear demonstration," he said.

ANALYSIS: Science Fiction Dreams That Came True

By changing the polarization of the light beam, the scientists could move objects in any direction. Zemanek's team found something else, though: the particles sorted themselves by size, with larger ones going to the left and smaller ones going to the right.

The sorting happens because how the light scattered by the particle depends on its size. At a given wavelength small particles will scatter light more than large ones. The light scatters in several directions, and at certain specific particle sizes, Zemanek said the tiny spheres acted like lenses, with some of the light making a kind of focus on one side.

The areas of focused light created a zone where the light's potential energy was at a minimum. This was a "well" where nearby particles would tend to fall. "It's like the cups for eggs in a carton." Zemanek said. A sphere would fall into the well, and as one was pulled along, it drags another behind it. Meanwhile other spheres fell in line, provided they were the same size.

Zemanek noted that if one were assembling a tiny robot, this would be a good way to move the parts around to where they are needed. Since the movement is done with light, it doesn't mater if the particles are metallic or not, or if they are susceptible to electric fields.

Grier said that the future work should focus on extending the range of the tractor beams to more than the micrometer scales. He noted that right now it seems that the object to be moved has to be smaller than the diameter of the beam. "Whether or not that's right, or how stringent a limit it sets, remains to be seen," he said.

The work was published in the Jan. 20 issue of Nature Photonics.