Did you think that the last person we sent to the Moon was 40 years ago last month? Well, think again!
OK … not quite in corporeal form. More like “telepresence.” But at least this person was a woman! In fact, she’s probably the most famous woman on the planet (ahead of Queen Elizabeth II, Hillary Clinton, or even Oprah).
Let me explain. NASA has a spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which was developed at Goddard Space Flight Center, just a couple of miles down the road from where I sit. I’m pretty sure the LRO craft was still at Goddard when I toured the place in the summer of 2008 in preparation for my OPN feature article, “Hubble’s Final Servicing Mission.” Launched in 2009, LRO is polar-orbiting the Moon and mapping its surface in three dimensions.
In fact, LRO already has a laser link with NASA Goddard, which uses the laser pulses to figure out the precise position of the spacecraft with respect to the Moon. So all the researchers had to do to “send” this famous woman — the Mona Lisa — into space was to encode a black-and-white image of her into the laser signal that was already heading out to the LRO, and then verify that it had been received properly.
This was the first time humans have conducted one-way laser communications at planetary distances, according to the principal investigator of the laser altimeter aboard LRO.
As usual, NBC News science editor Alan Boyle wrote a fine article about the experiment. The original experiment was published in Optics Express (disclaimer: I still write for another OSA publication as a freelancer).