NASA has turned the Mona Lisa into the first digital image to be transmitted via laser beam from Earth to a spacecraft in lunar orbit using technology that may soon become routine.
The laser signal was fired from an installation in Maryland in the United States. It beamed the image of the iconic painting to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a distance 240,000 miles (384,400 km). The orbiter has been circling the moon since 2009.
The Mona Lisa transmission, NASA scientists said, is a major advance in laser communication for interplanetary spacecraft.
“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances,” said David Smith, a researcher working with the LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter — which received the Mona Lisa message.
“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 distance future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide,” Smith added.
The LRO spacecraft was the prime choice to test out the novel communication method because the spacecraft was already equipped with a laser receiver. While most spacecraft exploring the solar system today are tracked using radio signals, NASA is tracking LRO via lasers as well.
But the timing had to be just right.
NASA used its Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging Station at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to send the Mona Lisa signal to LRO. The team divided the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting into sections measuring 150 by 200 pixels and then transmitted them via the pulsing of the laser to the orbiter at a data rate of about 300 bits per second.
Once the lunar orbiter received the image, it reconstructed the photo, corrected for distortions created as the laser signal zipped through the Earth’s atmosphere, and then sent the image back to Earth using its normal form of communication – radio waves.
“This pathfinding achievement sets the stage for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration,” Richard Vondrak, another researcher with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter said. He explained that is “a high data rate laser-communication-demonstration that will be a central feature of NASA’s next moon mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.”
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer is due to be launched toward the moon later this year and will focus on mapping the lunar atmosphere and environment.
Who knows? Mona Lisa may well mark the start of a renaissance in high-speed satellite communications.