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NASA sends Mona Lisa to the moon with lasers

In a show of planetary-scale laser communication, Leonardo's digitized lady gets beamed nearly 240,000 miles to a lunar satellite.

When Mona met LOLA: The corrected image was beamed to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

I love it when engineers show off.

NASA scientists, having apparently nothing better to do, have shot an image of the Mona Lisa to the moon by piggybacking it on laser pulses. Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece was successfully received by an instrument aboard the agency's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) some 240,000 miles away.

"This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances," MIT's David Smith, head of the spacecraft's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), said in a release.

"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."

As the NASA vid below explains, lasers are used to track the LRO's position. Staff used the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging Station at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to send the image.

It wasn't your average JPEG file. La Joconde, as she's also known, was chopped into a 152x200 pixel array, with each pixel assigned a gray-scale value and beamed up one at a time; the image transmission speed was about 300 bits per second.

LOLA, all the while following its primary mission of mapping the lunar terrain, put Mona back together based on the arrival times of the pixel data.

The 500-year-old image was beamed back to Earth via the LRO's radio telemetry system. Meanwhile, errors caused by turbulence in the atmosphere were cleaned up with Reed-Solomon error correction, a technique used in CDs and DVDs.

The success of the demonstration could pave the way for lasers to be used for satellite communication, according to NASA, particularly with its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which is set to launch this year.

Leonardo is said to have cherished his celebrated portrait and traveled with it to France. No doubt he would love the fact that Mona's cryptic smile has graced the heavens.