The Red Planet in August will receive its first red cent — a 1909 Lincoln, V.D.B. cent carried aboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity as part of a scientific calibration target used for testing the rover’s high-tech hand lens.
When Curiosity was launched onto its nine-month-long journey to the planet Mars on Nov. 26, the rover carried as one of its many scientific packages a calibration target. The cent is mounted near the bottom of the target, with its obverse facing outward.
The target, the size of a smart phone, will be used to test the performance of the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager.
According to NASA, “MAHLI’s close-up inspections of Martian rocks and soil will show details so tiny, the calibration target includes reference lines finer than a human hair.”
The target “looks like an eye chart supplemented with color chips and an attached penny.” A calibration target is a standard tool used by geologists on Earth.
“The ‘hand lens’ in MAHLI’s name refers to field geologists’ practice of carrying a hand lens for close inspection of rocks they find. When shooting photos in the field, geologists use various calibration methods,” according to NASA.
“When a geologist takes pictures of rock outcrops she is studying, she wants an object of known scale in the photographs,” said MAHLI principal investigator Kenneth Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. “If it is a whole cliff face, she’ll ask a person to stand in the shot. If it is a view from a meter or so away, she might use a rock hammer. If it is a close-up, as the MAHLI can take, she might pull something small out of her pocket. Like a penny.”
Edgett added: “The penny is on the MAHLI calibration target as a tip of the hat to geologists’ informal practice of placing a coin or other object of known scale in their photographs. A more formal practice is to use an object with scale marked in millimeters, centimeters or meters. Of course, this penny can’t be moved around and placed in MAHLI images; it stays affixed to the rover.”
The coin carried aboard Curiosity is no mere pocket change, however. As coin collectors well know, the 1909 Lincoln, V.D.B. cent is one of the more popular dates in the series, issued during the first weeks of production.
Edgett purchased the cent out of his own personal funds.
Edgett told Coin World Feb. 7 that he considers himself an “amateur” collector.
“Mostly, I enjoy saving the first [Philadelphia Mint and Denver Mint] cent, nickel, etc., I find as the new ones come out. Certainly I have always been most jazzed about the U.S. cents, going back to childhood,” he said.
Edgett decided to use a 1909 Lincoln, V.D.B. cent for special reasons.
“Originally the Curiosity rover was going to launch in 2009, and so I had planned all along to use a 1909 cent in celebration of the centennial of the Lincoln cent,” he said. “I could not use one of the four 2009 cents because we had to commit to the design and materials (i.e., the 1909 is brass, 2009 is mostly zinc) in 2008. When the launch was delayed to 2011, we still went forward with the 1909 cent because we already had it in-hand.
“In fact, we made 4 of these calibration targets, each with a 1909-VDB. One target is on its way to Mars, two others were used in testing at JPL, the other is in storage as a flight spare that could be used on a future mission to Mars, if such an opportunity were to materialize.
“The opportunity to launch to Mars comes once every 23-ish months. Thus, when the launch was delayed from 2009, it had to slip to 2011; it could go no earlier.”
Edgett indicated that the seller, who Edgett prefers not to identify, did not know the destination of the cent he purchased.
The coin is in circulated condition, though its exact grade is not recorded, although Edgett now admits “I wish I had documented this.”
He adds: “I believe it had been considered ‘circulated’ but it is in pretty good condition. It was much redder when I bought it. I think the various environments it was subjected to after the calibration target was assembled caused it to turn brown.
“It had to be sterilized to protect Mars from micro-organisms, it was in cleanroom environments, which are humid to reduce risk of electrostatic discharge, it was in a thermal environment chamber with very little or no atmosphere; it has already been through a lot.”
NASA indicates that the use of an universal, utilitarian object like a Lincoln cent serves an additional function: public engagement. Collectors and numismatic conservators may be especially interested in monitoring future changes to the coin.
“Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image,” Edgett said in a press release.
“The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars. Will it change color? Will it corrode? Will it get pitted by windblown sand?”
Edgett added in an email exchange with Coin World, anyone will be able to monitor the cent as it rests on the martian surface. “All of the images the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) acquires on Mars will be piped out to the internet pretty soon after they are received, so anyone will be able to make these comparisons.”
According to NASA, the middle of the target offers a marked scale of black bars in a range of labeled sizes. While the scale will not appear in photos MAHLI takes of Martian rocks, knowing the distance from the camera to a rock target will allow scientists to correlate calibration images to each investigation image.
Another part of MAHLI’s calibration target displays six patches of pigmented silicone as aids for interpreting color and brightness in images. Five of them — red, green, blue, 40-percent gray and 60-percent gray — are spares from targets on NASA Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The sixth, with a fluorescent pigment that glows red when exposed to ultraviolet light, allows checking of an ultraviolet light source on MAHLI. The fluorescent material was donated to the MAHLI team by Spectra Systems Inc., Providence, R.I.
A stair-stepped area at the bottom of the target, plus the cent, help with three-dimensional calibration using known surface shapes, according to NASA.
“The importance of calibration is to allow data acquired on Mars to be compared reliably to data acquired on Earth,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
The calibration target also features a miniscule cartoon of a character named “Joe the Martian.”
“The Joe the Martian character appeared regularly in a children’s science periodical, ‘Red Planet Connection,’ when Edgett directed the Mars outreach program at Arizona State University, Tempe, in the 1990s,” according to NASA. “Joe was created earlier, as part of Edgett’s schoolwork when he was 9 years old and NASA’s Mars Viking missions, launched in 1975, were inspiring him to dream of becoming a Mars researcher.”
Curiosity is due to land on Mars at Gale Crater in August. The rover is far larger than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that have been on the surface of Mars since 2004. Curiosity is the size of a compact automobile while Spirit and Opportunity are each about the size of a go-kart.
Curiosity’s scientific packages will enable scientists on Earth to perform various experiments and tests on Mars.
Coins onboard New Horizons
The 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent carried aboard Curiosity has some numismatic company on another NASA spacecraft: the New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. It carries two State quarter dollars, one for Florida, to represent the state where New Horizons was launched, and one for Maryland, representing the state where the spacecraft was built.
New Horizons, which has passed beyond the orbit of Uranus, is scheduled to arrive at the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015.
As with the cent onboard Curiosity, the two quarter dollars on New Horizons serve a utilitarian purpose; they are being used as a spin-balance weight on the 10-year mission.
Spacecraft from Earth have visited the eight major planets in the solar system, but have not yet visited any of the four trans-Neptune dwarf planets. The New Horizons mission will be the first.
The New Horizons mission to Pluto will take nearly 10 years to execute because of the vast distance from Earth to the dwarf planet. The spacecraft will journey more than 3 billion miles before arriving at Pluto for its five-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its three moons (Charon, the largest, and Nix and Hydra), according a NASA fact sheet.
New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, according to NASA.
New Horizons will not go into orbit around Pluto. Instead, it will continue into the Kuiper Belt where, if mission extension approval is given, it will continue to perform science tasks. The extended mission may direct the spacecraft toward one or more Kuiper Belt Objects beyond Pluto.
The Kuiper Belt is a region of the outer solar system, extending from the orbit of Neptune to approximately 55 astronomical units from the sun. ■