NASA Sends Mona Lisa to the Moon!

moonIn an effort to demonstrate how laser communications work, and perhaps just to show off a little, a team of NASA engineers shot an image of the Mona Lisa to the moon by piggybacking it on laser pulses. The transmission occurred back in mid-January, and took place between NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center here on Earth and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) some 386,000 km (240,000 miles) away. In addition to showcases how NASA regularly communicated with the orbiter, it also presented a possible means of communicating with a future moon colony.

On any given day, scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center use what is known as the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging Station to track the LRO’s position. Expanding on this, the staff reprogrammed the laser to send the massive work of art in the form of as massive JPEG file. This involved chopping the picture into a 152×200 pixel array, with each pixel assigned a gray-scale value and beamed up one at a time. All told, the process took some time, with image transmission speed clocked at about 300 bits per second.

mona_lisa_laserIt then fell to LOLO, the LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, to put the Mona Lisa back together based on the arrival times of the pixel data. All the while, LOLA continued to pursue its primary mission of mapping out the lunar terrain. The image was then beamed back to Earth via the LRO’s radio telemetry system, with only minor errors caused by turbulence in the atmosphere.

MIT’s David Smith, head of LOLA, had this to say about the event in a release:

“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances. In the near future, this type of simple laser communication might serve as a backup for the radio communication that satellites use. In the more distant future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide.”

According to NASA, the success of the demonstration could pave the way for lasers to be used for satellite communication, particularly with its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which is set to launch this year.

No telling how DaVinci might react to the news of his classic portrait breaching the heavens and being beamed into space. However, given the man’s obvious love of his work and fascination with all things metaphysical and scientific, I think he would have been very happy. Perhaps if his enigmatic masterpiece were to be send into the cosmos as part of the search for extra-terrestrial life too. But that’s another day and another mission!

And be sure to check out the video below from the Goddard SFC explaining the process, courtesy of NASA:


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