Mona Lisa Lasered to Moon

ABC News Radio | Partner
Published: January 22, 2013


A black and white version of Leonardo’s painting was transmitted, pixel by pixel, to a spacecraft that has been orbiting the moon since 2009

NASA researchers can now boast they sent one of most famous faces in history into the cosmos. It’s 240,000 miles each way; they did it with a laser.

Engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland successfully beamed an image of the Mona Lisa from Earth to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft that has been orbiting the moon since 2009. They said it was the first demonstration of laser communication with a ship in deep space.

A black and white version of Leonardo's painting was transmitted, pixel by pixel, to the Lunar Oribter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) on the spacecraft. The image was sent using the same laser pulses sent to track LOLA’s position.

“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances,” said LOLA’s principal investigator, David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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.”

While lasers are used to track the orbit of the spacecraft precisely enough to determine variations in the moon’s gravity, this successful transmission suggests the possibility of being able to “send data to a spacecraft at a low data rate,” Xiaoli Sun, a LOLA scientist at NASA Goddard, told ABC News.

“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 said.

(MORE: The Best Star-Gazing Events for 2013)

Sun said over a four-month period, scientists sent random numbers via laser to the lunar orbiter.  Then they tried some simple images, and finally, Leonardo’s famous painting. Sun said it took the team about ten tries to get it right; turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere interfered with the signals.

“We have paved the way for a future lunar laser communication demonstration that is going to be launched later this year,” Sun said. “We provided proof that you can do it, and you can do it to the moon.”

So why the Mona Lisa?

“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,” Sun said. “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.”

MORE ON WEATHER.COM: 25 Amazing Photos from Space

An X5 solar flare, the strongest observed in 2012, seen through an ultraviolet filter by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory March 7, 2012. (NASA)

Featured Blogs

Top Ten Weather Stories of 2014

By Dr. Jeff Masters
December 23, 2014

The top ten weather stories of 2014 include: #1: Earth Likely Had Its Warmest Year on Record; #2: Monsoon Floods in the India-Pakistan Border Region Kill 648; #3: India's Cyclone Hudhud Does $11 Billion in Damage; #4: Southeastern Brazil's Worst Drought in 50 years; and #5: The California Drought.

November 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By Christopher C. Burt
December 18, 2014

November was globally the 7th warmest such on record according to NOAA and 8th according to NASA (see Jeff Master’s blog for more about this). It was a cold month in the U.S. with some phenomenal lake-effect snowstorms. A powerful storm, dubbed a ‘Medicane’ formed in the Mediterranean Sea. Deadly floods occurred in Morocco, Italy, and Switzerland. It was the warmest November on record for Australia, Italy, Austria and much of Southeast Asia.Below are some of the month’s highlights.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.