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NASA sends Mona Lisa into space

Keen scientist and stargazer Leonardo Da Vinci would be proud: NASA have beamed an image of his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa into orbit. The US space agency sent the laser transmission to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009. It marks a significant breakthrough in interplanetary communications.

The enterprise was an experiment in pixellation in space as the painting was divided into sections measuring 150 by 200 pixels which were then transmitted by laser pulse to the orbiting craft. The sections were reassembled with a little adjustment to compensate for the distortions created by the Earth’s atmosphere. The image was then sent back to Earth using radio waves to confirm the success of the operation.

The process is rather more important than just establishing a possible way for astronauts to enjoy live football broadcasts on future missions. The laser communications system will add a useful extra tool to NASA’s next mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, due to launch later in 2013. Yes, nearly half a century after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, NASA is still collecting dust samples.

Researchers are excited about the possibilities all the same. "This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances," David Smith, who works with the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, said. "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."

The "beam me up Leonardo" achievement is vaguely impressive, but this kind of news can’t help but seem a little underwhelming compared to what our expectations, nurtured by science-fiction and TV, have become. While NASA get excited about what seems to be space-station fax machine, it falls some way short of a truly exciting innovation like those transporters they had in Star Trek.

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