January 19, 2013 - 10:17 AMT
NASA beams Mona Lisa image to the Moon

The U.S. space agency's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) scientists this week beamed an image of the Mona Lisa from Earth to the Moon-orbiting spacecraft's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument, NASA said, according to PCMagazine.

Calling the feat "the first anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances," LOLA principal investigator David Smith of MIT said, "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."

NASA researchers sent the digital image of Leonardo da Vinci's iconic painting nearly 240,000 miles from its Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging (NGSLR) station at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. to the LRO.

Doing so required the LOLA team to break up the Mona Lisa image into a 152 pixel-by-200 pixel array, with each pixel "converted into a shade of gray, represented by a number between zero and 4,095" and transmitted individually by laser pulse, LOLA scientist Xiaoli Sun said.

"Because LRO is already set up to receive laser signals through the LOLA instrument, we had a unique opportunity to demonstrate one-way laser communication with a distant satellite," Sun added.

The LOLA team was able to transmit the image "at a data rate of about 300 bits per second," NASA said. The Mona Lisa image actually piggybacked on routine laser pulses sent to the LRO and sending it didn't interfere "with LOLA's primary task of mapping the moon's elevation and terrain and NGSLR's primary task of tracking" the lunar satellite, according to the space agency.