NASA sends Mona Lisa to the moon with lasers

By Daniel S Levine,

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most recognizable images on earth and now it has been to space. NASA researchers beamed the image to a satellite orbiting the moon to demonstrate the first laser communication with the satellite.

NASA said that the image traveled 240,000 miles from the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging (NGSLR) in Maryland to the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been orbiting the moon since 2009. Researchers used the lasers that are routinely sent up to the satellite to track its location to send the image.

They transmitted a black and white version of the Mona Lisa pixel by pixel. The LOLA instrument then put the image together based on the time it received each pixel, then, to prove that it worked, the image was sent back to earth using its radio telemetry system. NASA says that the process never interfered with LRO’s primary purpose to map the moon.

“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances,” LOLA’s principal investigator, MIT’s David Smith, said in a statement. “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.”

LOLA scientist Xiaoli Sun told ABC News that the successful test proves that they could “send data to a spacecraft at a low data rate.”

“In the future, we will use lasers instead of microwaves to communicate in deep space — to do it better, faster, and with smaller equipment,” Sun explained.

As for why the Mona Lisa was picked, Sun said, “At the end, we just like to pick something that’s more real so it can give us a feeling about what information was sent, and what was lost due to turbulence...One of the guys on our team suggested it because it was a familiar image with lots of subtleties, so we can see instantly how much information was sent.”

NASA will next try to send information with a higher data rate using lasers. This “will be a central feature of NASA's next moon mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE),” Goddard's Richard Vondrak explained.



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