"TRON" Style Beam-propelled Solar Sailing

The Grid in "TRON: Legacy." (Photo by Walt Disney Pictures)

The original movie "TRON" featured a breathtaking scene in which a Solar Sailer zips across the virtual world of the Grid on a beam of concentrated energy. The new film, "TRON: Legacy" will provide moviegoers with an updated vision of the vehicle (skip to 2:09 in the trailer below) when it opens this week.

Sure, everything's fair game in a virtual sci-fi world, but this vision may well be a preview of real-world space propulsion technology in the centuries ahead. It all comes down to solar sail technology -- the very same demonstrated by NASA's NanoSail-D and Japan's IKAROS.

How do solar sails work? Here's the short version: Stars such as our sun emit sunlight in the form of photon streams. Photons are tiny particles of light, and while they don't possess mass, they do possess momentum. So when a beam of light bounces off a reflective surface, it pushes against that surface.

But what if we could generate our own cosmic breeze? Imagine using a shore-mounted wind machine to give a sail boat a stronger initial push. That's the idea behind beam-powered propulsion, only instead of a wind machine we'd roll out a high-powered laser or particle accelerator.

"With such a higher velocity, we'd be able to send an expedition to the nearest star within a human lifetime," Matloff says in the article, "provided you built a large enough laser, a large enough sail and a light enough spacecraft."

We could conceivably point such a beam toward a distant star system, establishing a laser highway to Alpha Centauri. We could also, Matloff suggests, use the beam as a transit system between our home system and an outbound, slow-moving space vessel.

So if you happen to hit theaters for "TRON: Legacy" this weekend, think about the principles explored with the Solar Sailer. Or geek out with the original 1982 vision. You can glimpse the classic solar sailer at the 1:33 mark in this trailer.

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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.