Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: In original form (left) and having having undergone digital manipulation (right) through what is known as Reed-Solomon correction; this is the same compression coding industry uses to convert CDs and DVDs into digital form.
An article, by Claire L. Evans, in National Geographic’s Science Blogs say that NASA has sent a digital image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa ( to the moon, or at least to one of its orbiting spacecraft. The painting, completed between 1503 and 1506, also referred to as “La Gioconda,” was commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant from Italy, and the person represented was his wife, Lisa del Giocondo.
The smiling Gioconda traveled nearly 240,000 miles in digital form from the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging (NGSLR) station at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a robotic spacecraft currently in low orbit around the moon. By transmitting the image piggybacked on laser pulses routinely sent to track the craft’s position, the team achieved simultaneous laser communication and tracking–a first for one-way laser communication at planetary distances.
It seems we’re due for an update of Benjamin’s oft-cited essay. Perhaps The Work of Art in the Age of Optical Teleportation? Of course, the notion of flattening the complexity and totally specific context of a piece of art–in this case, 16th-century Florence–in order to transmit it, efficiently, across minds and generations like a winsome smiling cultural totem: well, it’s not that different from using compression to reduce a painting to its simplest numerical essence.
In order to make the cosmic transmission, the Mona Lisa had to be converted from a 500-year-old oil painting into a teensy 152 x 200 pixel array, each pixel of which was converted into a shade of gray, represented by a number between zero and 4,095 (the first fifty, presumably, were especially exciting). 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. The result: a data rate of about 300 bits per second. Not great for an internet connection, but then again, we’re talking about metamorphosing a priceless emblem of Western art into incorporeal units of measurement, destined to be launched on a river of light to a spacecraft hanging around the moon, so, not bad.
Why the Mona Lisa? For one, it is one of the most well-known paintings in the world; and it comes from the hand of DaVinci, who is recognized as the true Renaissance man, who was also a scientist, thinker and inventor. DaVinci represents the visionary, a man infused with imagination and considered one of modern times’ forward thinkers. What better way to tell the universe of what makes earth a great planet than to send one of its greatest works out into space.
You can read the rest of the article at [NatGeo]