GREENBELT, Md., Jan. 17 (UPI) -- NASA scientists say they beamed an image of the Mona Lisa to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, in a test of communicating with a satellite using a laser.
The iconic image, converted to digital format, traveled nearly 240,000 miles from the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging station at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument on the spacecraft, the space agency reported Thursday.
Normally, satellites that go beyond Earth orbit use radio waves for tracking and communication. The LRO is the only satellite in orbit around a body other than Earth to be tracked by laser as well, researchers said.
"This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances," said David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the principal investigator for the altimeter instrument. "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."
Scientists divided the Mona Lisa image into an array of 152 pixels by 200 pixels, and each pixel was transmitted by a laser pulse.
"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," NASA Goddard scientist Xiaoli Sun said.
Smartphone could quiet itself in theater
REDMOND, Wash., Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Microsoft may be working on a smartphone that can automatically silence itself when it realizes it's in a movie theater, a patent application indicates.
As described in the patent first reported by Infoworld, the phone would put itself into "an inconspicuous mode of operation" in certain circumstances, changing its ring tone to silent, lowering screen brightness and simplifying alerts for things like texts to be less distracting.
The phone would change operating modes based on both global positioning system information and environmental factors like the light or sound level, CNET reported Thursday.
The GPS information could tell the smartphone it's in a movie theater, and the phone's camera could detect when the lights are lowered and put the device in its "inconspicuous" mode.
Or at a concert venue the phone's microphone could pick up the start of the music, telling the device to go quiet and darken the screen, CNET said.
Doubt about prehistoric 'killer walrus'
OTAGO, New Zealand, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Paleontologists say examination of a new fossil found in Southern California has thrown doubt on earlier claims of a prehistoric "killer walrus."
An analysis of a new fossil of the extinct walrus Pelagiarctos suggests a different hypothesis to an earlier one that a "killer walrus" existed, preying on other marine mammals and/or birds, the researchers said.
The first fossils of Pelagiarctos, discovered in the 1980s, suggested a large, robust size of the jaw bone and sharp pointed cusps on the teeth similar to modern bone-cracking carnivores like hyenas, leading to the hypothesis it fed upon other marine mammals rather than the typical diet of fish as in modern walruses.
However, researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand and the University of Wyoming said the new fossil, a lower jaw with teeth that was more complete than the original find, suggests Pelagiarctos was more of a fish eater, as it lacked adaptations for being a "killer walrus."
"This new find indicates that this enigmatic walrus would have appeared similar in life to modern sea lions, with a deep snout and large canines," Otago researcher Robert Boessenecker said.
Pelagiarctos is estimated to have been similar in size to some modern male sea lions, weighing close to 800 pounds.
"However, modern pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses) of small and large body sizes are dietary generalists, and tend to have diets rich in fish -- including sea lions similar in body size to Pelagiarctos, which means that its large body size alone doesn't make Pelagiarctos an apex predator," Boessenecker said.
Plants flowering earlier in climate change
MADISON, Wis., Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Native plants in the eastern United States are flowering as much as a month earlier than historically normal in response to a warming climate, scientists say.
Researchers from Boston and Harvard universities and the University of Wisconsin-Madison say the findings give clues to ecological changes in response to a warming world and may help predict effects on important agricultural crops, which depend on flowering to produce fruit.
The researchers compared modern flowering times to historical records compiled by iconic American naturalists Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.
Native plants such as serviceberry and nodding trillium are blooming 11 days earlier, on average, in the area around Concord, Mass., where Thoreau worked, the researchers said.
In Wisconsin, where Leopold gathered records of blooming plants like wild geranium and marsh marigold, the change is even more striking, with plants blooming on average nearly a month earlier than they did 67 years ago when Leopold made his observations.
"These historical records provide a snapshot in time and a baseline of sorts against which we can compare more recent records from the period in which climate change has accelerated," Wisconsin-Madison wildlife ecology Professor Stan Temple said.
The findings have important implications for predicting plant responses to changing climate, the researchers said, essential for plants such as fruit trees that are highly susceptible to the vagaries of climate and weather.
"Earlier blooming exposes plants to a greater risk of experiencing cold snaps that can damage blossoms and prevent fruiting," Temple said in a UW-Madison release.
The study has been published online in the journal PLoS One.