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.
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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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.
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
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
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
Curiosity’s scientific packages will enable scientists on Earth
to perform various experiments and tests on Mars. VIDEO