Laser Beam Carries Mona Lisa to Moon

Posted at 11:03 AM, Jan 19, 2013

By Michael Martinez, CNN

(CNN) — The “Mona Lisa” has been to the moon and back — or at least a digital image of her.

The famous face was used in an experiment and carried in a laser beam to a man-made satellite orbiting the moon, NASA said Thursday.

The successful transmission is a significant achievement — which Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci would have surely appreciated — because it marks “the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances,” said principal investigator David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By using lasers, NASA is now on the verge of revolutionizing and speeding up delivery of data now dispatched from outer space and all around the solar system, the agency said.

Laser technology is used in CDs that have made albums obsolete, and now it holds the promise of bringing live, high-definition video feeds from far reaches of the solar system, including Jupiter, NASA said.

“In the near future, this type of simple laser communication might serve as a backup for the radio communication that satellites use,” Smith said in a statement. “In the more distant future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide.”

The enigmatic “Mona Lisa” countenance was digitized and traveled via laser almost 240,000 miles from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Satellites beyond Earth use radio waves for tracking and communication, but the moon satellite is the only one to rely on lasers for tracking, NASA said.

NASA found a way to use that laser to deliver the “Mona Lisa”image to the satellite, which in turn confirmed its receipt by sending the image back to Earth using traditional radio telemetry.

The image transmission wasn’t perfect and suffered defects because the Earth’s atmosphere caused errors, even when the sky was clear, NASA said.

Scientists fixed the errors by using the same error-correction code used in CDs and DVDs, NASA said.

The “Mona Lisa” experiment was transmitted at a slow data rate of about 300 bits per second, but the “pathfinding achievement sets the stage for … high data rate laser-communication demonstrations that will be a central feature of NASA’s next moon mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer,” said Goddard’s Richard Vondrak, the orbiter’s deputy project scientist.