US Coins

1909 Lincoln cent passes 2,000 days on Mars

A particular 1909 Lincoln, V.D.B. cent set a record recently, though not in terms of price or grade. The coin, in fact, is a bit dusty and shows some toning. 

The coin is not rare or in perfect shape. Its  achievement is that it has now spent more than 2,000 days on the planet Mars. 

The 1909 Lincoln cent with designer Victor D. Brenner’s V.D.B. initials on the reverse is 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, 2011, 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 rover landed on the surface of Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, and not long after, NASA scientists and engineers began using the rover’s main camera to take a series of photographs of its surrounding and itself, including the calibration target, of which the cent is an important part.

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The Lincoln cent is no mere souvenir along for the ride of a lifetime. It plays a significant scientific role. The calibration target, the size of a smart phone, is 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,” MAHLI principal investigator Kenneth Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, told Coin World in 2012. “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. 

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Edgett told Coin World Feb. 7, 2012, that he considered 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, but its exact grade is not recorded, although Edgett admitted in 2012, “I wish I had documented this.” 

He added: “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 a 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 that 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.” 

Side-by-side comparisons of the cent are possible by looking at images taken on Sept. 9, 2012, and Dec. 2, 2017. The coin does not appear to shows additional wear but it has picked up a coating of dust, no surprise given the dusty conditions of the surface of Mars in which Curiosity has operated.

Curiosity 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. 

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