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NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is carrying a vintage Lincoln penny along for the long interplanetary journey to Mars – and it’s not to open the first Martian savings account.

Scientists will use the century old Lincoln penny – minted back in 1909 – as a modern age calibration target for one of Curiosity’s five powerful science cameras attached to the end of the hefty, 7 foot (2.1 meter) long robotic arm.

The car sized rover is on course to touchdown at the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater in just 161 days on Aug. 6, 2012.

So far Curiosity has traveled 244 million kilometers since blasting off on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida and has another 322 million kilometers to go to the Red Planet.

The copper penny is bundled to a shoulder joint on the rovers arm along with the other elements of the calibration target, including color chips, a metric standardized bar graphic, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration.

The whole target is about the size of a smart phone and looks a lot like an eye vision chart in an ophthalmologist’s office. And it serves a similar purpose, which will be to check the performance of Curiosity eyes – specifically the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera located at the terminus of the robotic arm.

Curiosity’s Calibration Target
Two instruments at the end of the robotic arm on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will use calibration targets attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MAHLI will conduct close-up inspections of Martian rocks and soil. It can show tiny details, finer than a human hair.

The term “hand lens” in MAHLI’s name refers to the standard practice by field geologists’ of carrying a hand lens during expeditions for close up, magnified inspection of rocks they find along the way. So it’s also critical to pack various means of calibration so that researchers can interpret their results and put them into proper perspective.

MAHLI can also focus on targets over a wide range of distances near and far, from about a finger’s-width away out to the Red Planets horizon, which in this case means the mountains and rim of the breathtaking Gale Crater landing site.

“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 Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, which supplied the camera to NASA.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC
Curiosity with robotic arm extended. Calibration target is located at a shoulder joint on the arm. Photo taken just before encapsulation for 8 month long interplanetary Martian Journey and touchdown inside Gale Crater. Credit: Ken Kremer

The target features a collection of marked black bars in a wide range of labeled sizes to correlate calibration images to each image taken by Curiosity.

“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 donated the special Lincoln penny with funds from his own pocket. The 1909 “VDB” cent stems from the very first year that Lincoln pennies were minted and also marks the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The VDB initials of the coin’s designer – Victor David Brenner — are on the reverse side. In mint condition the 1909 Lincoln VDB copper penny has a value of about $20.

The Lincoln penny in this photograph is part of a camera calibration target attached to NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“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,” Edgett said. “Of course, this penny can’t be moved around and placed in MAHLI images; it stays affixed to the rover.”

“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.

“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?”

MAHLI’s calibration target also features a display of six patches of pigmented silicone to assist in interpreting color and brightness in the images. Five of them are leftovers from Spirit and Opportunity. The sixth has 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.

Three-dimensional calibration of the MSL images will be done using the penny and a stair-stepped area at the bottom of the target.

“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.

Curiosity is a 1 ton (900 kg) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots. The science payload is 15 times heavier than the twin robots.

Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA could only afford to build one rover this time.

Curiosity MSL location on 27 Feb 2012. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will be NASA’s last Mars rover since the 4th generation ExoMars rover due to liftoff in 2018 was just cancelled by the Obama Administration as part of a deep slash to NASA’s Planetary Science budget.

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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