Washington: As part of the first demonstration of laser communication with a satellite at the moon, scientists with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) beamed an image of the Mona Lisa to the spacecraft from Earth.
The iconic image travelled 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 Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument on the spacecraft.
By transmitting the image piggyback on laser pulses that are routinely sent to track LOLA’s position, the team achieved simultaneous laser communication and tracking.
NASA Goddard scientists transmitted an image of the Mona Lisa from Earth to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at the moon by piggybacking on laser pulses that routinely track the spacecraft.
“This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances,” David Smith, LOLA’s principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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 distant future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide,” Smith said.
Typically, satellites that go beyond Earth orbit use radio waves for tracking and communication. LRO is the only satellite in orbit around a body other than Earth to be tracked by laser as well.
“Because LRO is already set up to receive laser signals through the LOLA instrument, we had a unique opportunity to demonstrate one-way laser communication with a distant satellite,” Xiaoli Sun, lead author of the paper, said.
Precise timing was the key to transmitting the image. Sun and colleagues divided the Mona Lisa image into an array of 152 pixels by 200 pixels. Every pixel was converted into a shade of gray, 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. The complete image was transmitted at a data rate of about 300 bits per second.
The laser pulses were received by LRO’s LOLA instrument, which reconstructed the image based on the arrival times of the laser pulses from Earth. This was accomplished without interfering with LOLA’s primary task of mapping the moon’s elevation and terrain and NGSLR’s primary task of tracking LRO.
The success of the laser transmission was verified by returning the image to Earth using the spacecraft’s radio telemetry system.
Turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere introduced transmission errors even when the sky was clear. To overcome these effects, Sun and colleagues employed Reed-Solomon coding, which is the same type of error-correction code commonly used in CDs and DVDs. The experiments also provided statistics on the signal fluctuations due to Earth’s atmosphere.
To clean up transmission errors introduced by Earth’s atmosphere, Goddard scientists applied Reed-Solomon error correction, which is commonly used in CDs and DVDs. Typical errors include missing pixels and false signals. The white stripe indicates a brief period when transmission was paused.
“This pathfinding achievement sets the stage for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), a high data rate laser-communication demonstrations that will be a central feature of NASA’s next moon mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE),” Goddard’s Richard Vondrak, the LRO deputy project scientist, said.
The study has been recently published in Optics Express.