It's rather well known that the Apollo lunar landings installed retroreflectors on the Moon, and that these can be used to reflect laser beams back at Earth, to measure the Earth-Moon distance to exquisite accuracy.
However, the weaselly phrase, "can be used", in that common understanding, is rarely examined in practice. So, I'd like to ask: what does it take to observe a retroreflected beam from this equipment?
- What is the diffraction-limited minimal width of a laser beam when it reaches the Moon if it is sent from a laser pointer? an amateur-astronomy telescope? the telescopes in actual use for this purpose?
- What is the fraction of laser power that can be effectively received back on Earth using an equivalent aperture?
- Does atmospheric seeing play a role in degrading these observations?
- What types of detectors are required to observe the beam? What laser powers are required to make the reflected beam visible to reasonable detectors?
- Is any fancy signal processing (say, shining out a burst of five pulses in a row, and looking for a matching structure in the observed image) necessary for this?
- (and, while we're here: what safety and legal concerns must be addressed when shooting laser beams at the night sky?)
I'm happy to accept a reasonably recent account of this type of observation, but I'm mostly interested in an explanation of what the minimal equipment would be to achieve it, as well as explanations of how the physical considerations in the bullet points above apply to such a setup.