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http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2012-033

Mars-Bound NASA Rover Carries Coin for Camera Checkup

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

February 07, 2012

The camera at the end of the robotic arm on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has its own calibration target, a smartphone-size plaque that looks like an eye chart supplemented with color chips and an attached penny.

When Curiosity lands on Mars in August, researchers will use this calibration target to test performance of the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI. 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. This camera is not limited to close-ups, though. It can focus on any target from about a finger's-width away to the horizon.

Curiosity, the rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, also carries four other science cameras and a dozen black-and-white engineering cameras, plus other research instruments. The spacecraft, launched Nov. 26, 2011, will deliver Curiosity to a landing site inside Mars' Gale Crater in August to begin a two-year investigation of whether that area has ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

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.

"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. "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 bought the special penny that's aboard Curiosity with funds from his own pocket. It is a 1909 "VDB" cent, from the first year Lincoln pennies were minted, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, with the VDB initials of the coin's designer - Victor David Brenner -- on the reverse.

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