- "We're caught in a tractor beam! It's pulling us in!"
- ―Han Solo
A tractor beam was a projected force field used by spaceports, planetary bases, space stations, and starships to effectively grasp and guide vessels to a safe designated landing. They could also be used to forcibly capture enemy ships. The first Death Star was equipped with 768 tractor-beam generators, enabling it to constrain ships such as the Millennium Falcon with ease.
Application and use
- "They've got a tractor beam on us. I can't break free!"
- ―Kyle Katarn
The most common use for a tractor beam was to help guide spacecraft into a safe landing at spaceports and docking bays, as well as to aid with the loading and unloading of cargo. Some ships also had personnel-retrieval tractor beams, enabling them to rescue extravehicular personnel.
Warships, such as Star Destroyers, boasted powerful military-grade tractor-beam projectors that could capture enemy ships. These high-powered force fields could overpower their quarry's engines at times, to be maneuvered into a hangar or to hold them in position for boarding. The Imperials had a book called Imperial Tractor Beam Primer with instructions on how to operate tractor beams.
A tractor beam relied upon the inertia of the craft it was based upon compared to the craft being affected. Ships with high inertia, typically meaning high mass, could affect smaller vessels with little strain on their own propulsion. Capital ships could tractor small freighters, for example, but if a freighter attempted to tractor a capital ship, it would actually affect the smaller freighter's trajectory. For two ships of roughly equal size, the attraction was equal, but could be affected by the relative speeds of the two vessels.
There were several novel ways to escape from a tractor beam. Very small craft with powerful engines could outmaneuver tractor beams if the ship's pilot was more cunning than the tractor-beam operator or targeting computer.
The tractor beams aboard the Death Star took energy from the main reactor, giving them a constant flow of power and making it impossible for a vessel caught in it to escape. However, if one of the tractor beam's seven links to the reactor was severed, the projectors would be inactive and vessels could escape, as Obi-Wan Kenobi was aware.
Tractor beams could also be disrupted by a Stage Three torpedo. These instances, however, were rare in relation to the number of times tractor beams reliably captured small vessels.
Another countermeasure was the Covert Shroud gambit. While difficult to perform and requiring extensive preparation, the Covert Shroud was highly effective. It involved using the shell of a larger ship to contain a smaller one, along with a relatively weak self-destruct mechanism. Once the larger ship was caught in a tractor beam, the pilot (and any other crew) would transfer to the smaller ship and activate the self-destruct. This would release the smaller ship and cause the tractor beam to catch the debris of the larger ship. The resulting delay would allow the smaller ship to escape to hyperspace before the tractor beam could be re-targeted.
In 9 ABY, Luke Skywalker was almost captured twice by the tractor beams of Grand Admiral Thrawn's flagship, the Chimaera. In the first instance, Luke fired a proton torpedo and at the very same instant reversed his sublight engines in an unorthodox manner. This caused the tractor targeting computer to lock onto the torpedo, destroying the tractor beam projector. In the second instance, Luke used a large freighter as a disguise with his X-wing hidden inside. After the freighter was locked by the tractor beam, he destroyed the outer hull of the ship and escaped in the shielded X-wing, while the operator uselessly tried to regain the lock through the debris field of metal.
In orbit around Selonia, Han Solo found himself in a crippled Selonian cone ship with no propulsion, orbit decaying, rapidly descending into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, Leia Organa Solo and Mara Jade in the Jade's Fire looked on helplessly, unable to affect the cone ship's trajectory with a tractor beam because the ships were of roughly equal size and the cone ship was already accelerating toward the planet, thus it had the greater momentum. A tractor beam would only have pulled both vessels to their doom.
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