Oldest Human-Made Object in Space

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The recent launch of the Curiosity Mars rover has quietly broken the record for oldest human-made object in space, and instantly pulled numismatics, the study of coinage, into the Space Age.

Prior to the launch, the oldest human-made object in space was the Vanguard 1 satellite, which was launched in 1958 and operated until 1964. Now it is a coin!

American geologists have long used copper Lincoln pennies as scale indicators in photographs. All the Mars rover missions are geology projects conducted at a distance. And so, as a homage to professional geology tradition, a 1909 one-cent coin is attached to Curiosity’s camera calibration target.

Being over a hundred years old, the coin is from a time sufficiently far from the present that industrial and conflict archaeologists already routinely excavate and document its remains. As far as I know, this is the first time that an antique is launched into space (disregarding stuff astronauts have brought into orbit and then back home again).

Update 15 Feb: Long-time Aard regular Lassi Hippeläinen points out that in 1999, some cremated remains of planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker were sent to the Moon, and he was born in 1928. In my opinion, burnt human bones do qualify as artefacts, but they were made at cremation, not when Shoemaker’s original baby skeleton formed.


  1. #1 tenine
    February 14, 2012

    I would note that all US CRM archaeologists would treat a 1909 penny as a historically significant artifact. Not just industrial or conflict archaeologists.

  2. #2 Martin R
    February 14, 2012

    Here in Sweden, I would only keep a 1909 coin if I found it in a stratigraphically secure context with relevance to older stuff. In ploughsoil, I don’t even keep the ubiquitous 18th century coins.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    February 14, 2012

    What is significant about a 1909 US 1-cent coin is that 1909 is the first year in which Lincoln’s profile appears on the obverse. (The design change was in honor of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.) The Lincoln design replaced the earlier “Indian Head” on the obverse. See Wikipedia for a history of designs on the US 1-cent coin.

  4. #4 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 15, 2012

    The previous record holder was Eugene Shoemaker. Some of his ashes were sent to Moon in 1999.

  5. #5 Mumin
    February 15, 2012

    Ok the coin is a nice touch, and I can dig the Autobahn graphic. But what’s up with the makeup set?

  6. #6 Martin R
    February 15, 2012

    That’s what happens when women become NASA engineers!

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    February 15, 2012

    Now, if Shoemaker had some grenade shard from a war embedded in his tissues, and the grenade was manufactured prior to 1909…

  8. #8 Manok
    February 15, 2012

    If the burned bones were made at a cremation, at thus only qualify as an “1999-artifact”, then likewise the coin should be looked at as a integral part of some calibration plaque, made in 2010. 🙂

  9. #9 Cirquelar
    February 15, 2012

    I beg to differ that pennies were used exclusively for scale by geologists. Often a lens cap (since you have to take it off anyways) will be used or often a rock hammer (Estwing) or a person. The only time a coin would be used, any coin, would be for fine layering, otherwise the geologists are taking picture of formations that would dwarf a single coin. The date of the penny, 1909, was meant in recognition of the original launch/arrival date.

  10. #10 ToSeek
    February 15, 2012

    I can beat that twice over: The Apollo 11 astronauts took pieces of the original Wright Flyer to the Moon with them. From even earlier than that, the STS-117 took a 1611 cargo tag reading “YAMES TOWNE” into space with them in 2007. Reference: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/Whatsgoingup.html

  11. #11 Michael Kelsey
    February 15, 2012

    @Mumin #5: The whole device is a calibration target for the cameras on the MSL Curiosity rover. The three colors are known Pantone values, and there are two fixed grey-scales and a UV panel below them. The color and grey values in images returned by the cameras can be calibrated by comparing the imaged colors to the known values. The “Autobahn” picture is a graduated linear scale — with the camera at a known distance from the target, object sizes in returned images can be calibrated to absolute size.

    Here’s NASA’s press release about the coin. One of the links at the bottom of that page includes a detailed description of the camera calibration target.

  12. #12 Greg laden
    February 16, 2012

    The significance of the coin is not that Lincoln is reversed, but that 1909 is the first year the Lincoln penny was minted.

  13. #13 Martin R
    February 16, 2012

    Manok, I would agree with you if they had melted the coin down for its metal.

    Cirquelar, nobody said that pennies was the only thing ever used for scale.

    ToSeek, this is about stuff that’s still in space.

    Greg, nobody said that Lincoln is reversed, but that he is on the obverse “heads” side of the coin. The “tails” side is called the reverse.

  14. #14 Ian Kemmish
    February 16, 2012

    What about Shumacher’s dental fillings?

  15. #15 Martin R
    February 16, 2012

    The fillings are probably an unrecognisable metallic slaggy powder after cremation and grinding.

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