NASA has just completed a successful test of laser communication — according to Space.com, the agency just beamed an image of the Mona Lisa from an installation in Maryland to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter some 240,000 miles away. The LRO, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009, was the primary choice for this test since it is already outfitted with laser communication gear; most of NASA's other spacecraft use more traditional radio signals for communication. The image of the Mona Lisa was divided up into 150 x 200 pixel sections and then beamed from the Goddard Flight Center up to the LRO at a rate of about 300 bits per second — not exactly the fastest signal out there, but we'll give it credit for managing to transmit data all the way to the moon.
"This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances," said David Smith, a researcher working with the LRO's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. "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." While there's no actual timetable for when laser might replace or augment radio communication, NASA's already planning future testing. Later this year, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explore will launch towards the moon, and NASA plans to test high data rate laser communications with it.