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NASA sends Da Vinci's Mona Lisa to the moon on lasers

Matthew ShaerThe Christian Science Monitor
A full moon shines brightly over the Birchwood airport. Sept. 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The moon rises over the Knik river as the northern lights dance on the horizon. Nov. 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
An airplane takes off from Merrill Field as an almost full moon rises behind. Nov. 27, 2012
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The full moon rises over the port of Anchorage. Nov. 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The moonrise over downtown Anchorage, photographed from the roof of the 15-story Inlet Tower. Nov 29, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
An almost full moon shines over Turnagain Arm, as seen from the Alaska Railroad. Oct. 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The moon rises over the Knik river as the northern lights dance on the horizon. Nov. 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The moonrise over downtown Anchorage, photographed from the roof of the 15-story Inlet Tower. Nov 29, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The moon, shown here during a faint partial eclipse in the early morning hours of Nov. 28, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Moonrise over downtown Anchorage. Nov. 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
An almost full moon rises over Merrill Field. Nov. 27, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

Sometime in the early 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci painted his Mona Lisa, a work that has been called "the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world." More than 500 years later, and the Mona Lisa can add a new superlative to her resume: a trip to the moon.

In a new paper published this week, scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland, said they were were able to use lasers to send an image of da Vinci's painting all the way up to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, an unmanned spacecraft currently circling the moon. Later, the image was returned to earth by a radio telemetry system.

"This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances," said David Smith, the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter's principal investigator, in a press 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."

At Goddard, scientists split the image of the Mona Lisa into an array of 152 pixels by 200 pixels. "Every pixel was converted into a shade of gray," NASA explained, "represented by a number between zero and 4,095. Each pixel was transmitted by a laser pulse, with the pulse being fired in one of 4,096 possible time slots during a brief time window allotted for laser tracking." NASA says the image was eventually transmitted to LRO at 300 bits per second.

So hey, why did the NASA Goddard researchers choose the Mona Lisa for its experiment and not, say, an image of Pat Patriot? Well, according to Goddard's Xiaoli Sun, the principal author of the paper, it all comes down to the iconic nature of the painting. "[The Mona Lisa] is a familiar image with lots of subtlety," Sun told NBC. "You can immediately feel whether the image looks right, and how much information got lost."

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