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
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
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
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. ■