What do art mavens and NASA nerds have in common? Maybe not much. But late last month, the two were artfully brought together when the Mona Lisa was projected into outer space on laser pulses.

In an effort to test the quality of laser communication, NASA sent a digital image of da Vinci’s famous painting to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), roughly 240,000 miles away. From Greenbelt, Maryland, to a moon-orbiting spacecraft, the Mona Lisa’s smile has become truly ubiquitous.

Why the Mona Lisa? One can only guess what space might have thought of one of Jenny Saville’s lovely ladies or a Francis Bacon Pope.

“We chose the Mona Lisa because it is a familiar image with a lot of subtleties, which helped us to see the effect of transmission errors,” said Xiaoli Sun, a NASA Goddard scientist in a Smithsonian interview. In fact, in 2005, Dutch researchers quantified the Mona Lisa’s subtleties by percentage: 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, and 2% angry.

The Mona Lisa isn’t entirely unique, though; she joins the already long line of art sent into space, including works by Rauschenberg (who drew a line), Warhol (a penis), and Claes Oldenburg (a picture of Mickey Mouse), and many more.

For a man equally as brilliant in science as in art, da Vinci would no doubt be amused, if not gratified, that his work has been beamed into space by NASA. Perhaps the Vitruvian Man is no longer the iconic merging of da Vinci’s loves of art and science.

The LRO, the satellite that exhibited the work, has been mapping the moon’s elevation and terrain since 2009, and it is the only satellite currently equipped with a laser-tracking device, known as the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), which made it uniquely suited for the experiment.

To clean up transmission errors introduced by the Earth’s atmosphere (left), Goddard scientists applied Reed-Solomon error correction (right). Image courtesy of Xiaoli Sun, NASA Goddard.

The Mona Lisa before and after Reed-Solomon coding (image courtesy of Xiaoli Sun, NASA Goddard, via blogs.smithsonianmag.com)

According to NASA’s press release, the image was pixelated and then converted into a numerical gray scale, with values ranging between zero and 4,095, once again proving the stealth of modern science and da Vinci’s impeccable knack for detail. Each pixel rode a laser pulse through space and, as one might have guessed, experienced some turbulence leaving Earth’s atmosphere. NASA compensated for the disturbances with the Reed-Solomon coding system, usually found in CDs and DVDs as an error-correction algorithm. And the whole thing was accomplished without hampering the LRO’s primary mapping task. Cool!

Does this mean future astronauts will be able to watch projected films on the side of satellites, like drive-in theaters for space? Probably not. But scientists are hopeful the technology will be used for deep-space communication and as backup for the more traditional radio communication currently used.

In the meantime, we in the art world look forward to more celestial exhibitions.

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Arianne Wack

Arianne Wack is a graduate student at NYU, studying Cultural Reporting and Criticism. She is an alumna of Ringling College of Art and Design, where she studied the finer arts, with a concentration in...

3 replies on “NASA Beams the Mona Lisa into Space”

  1. I am 83% disgusted, 9% angry, 6% confused, and 2% fearful that dear Dutch researchers consider it legitimate to lay out such emotional prescriptions. So much so, I applied the same formula instead of just grumbling myself to sleep. I enjoy your hopeful mentioning of ‘drive-in’ space theatres though, Arianne. One can only hope. Thank you for the article!

    1. You’re very welcome! I had to giggle at the implications that a look could be quantified so neatly, especially THE look. I imagined myself later that night, after I had read the Smithsonian post, staring into my roommate’s face calculating exactly how she felt about my not having cleaned the kitchen yet. Although, I imagine the roundtable discussions in this particular Dutch lab to have been super interesting, I’d be that fly on the wall. Also, to your statement above. Yes. It certainly is telling.

  2. This is probably due to having just read an interview with Ann Cahill, but isn’t it telling that it would be a penis projected into the cosmos, as opposed to a laser vagina?

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