Curiosity is new Mars star, but Opportunity’s still knocking

For more than eight years, an elite team of drivers has been maneuvering the most unusual of vehicles across treacherous and distant terrain.

The drivers of the Opportunity rover, a 400-pound robot sent to scour the Martian surface for signs of water, have been navigating the Red Planet without much fanfare.

But now, there’s a new rover in town.

Curiosity is the souped-up, tricked-out lab on wheels that landed Aug. 5. It has about five times the mass of its predecessor and boasts fancy new gadgets, including a laser-shooting red eye and a chemistry lab in its belly. Unlike its solar-powered elder, the new rover can work through the long winter nights using its nuclear power generator.

PHOTOS: Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity

It’s rather like the difference between driving your parents’ beat-up sedan and a brand-new SUV.

Over the last few years, many rover drivers have been pulled from their Opportunity duties and tasked with driving Curiosity. Now the new rover has 16 people on its driving team, while the older one is left with four.

How does it feel to be one of them?

Not so bad, it turns out.

“We’re going to be working a few more shifts than we used to — but we always wanted more shifts anyway, so that’s not a problem,” said Ashley Stroupe, an Opportunity driver who also worked with its rover twin Spirit before its demise in 2010.

Indeed, the engineers still driving Opportunity insist they aren’t jealous of their colleagues. Far from it.

For one thing, many of the men and women driving Curiosity from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge have worked with both rovers, said Matt Heverly, the lead driver for the new mission who cut his teeth with Opportunity. After all, he said, experienced rover drivers are hard to come by.

In fact, Opportunity has taught the Curiosity drivers some handy tricks, said Vandi Tompkins, who also has worked with both vehicles.

When Opportunity got stuck in thick Martian sand, the rover kept turning its wheels, thinking it was driving steadily along. Now, Tompkins said, the drivers make the rover take regular snapshots on its journey so that they know it is making progress.

These sorts of lessons even factored into Curiosity’s design, she added. For example, its six wheels have Morse-code hole patterns that will make distinctive tracks in the sand, helping drivers estimate how far the rover has traveled across otherwise featureless dunes.

The scrappy Opportunity has earned the love and admiration of its human caretakers, who have learned to work around the challenges presented by its ailing and arthritic body. When its shoulder joint gave out, the drivers figured out how to properly position Opportunity’s arm using its wheels, Tompkins said.

It’s the sort of challenge engineers enjoy because it keeps them on their toes, Stroupe said. It may be a while before Curiosity provides that kind of fun.

A good-natured rivalry may yet develop between the two teams once Curiosity rolls away from the spot where it touched down in Gale Crater — distance records to break, roving life spans to push.

“I’m sure there will be,” Heverly predicted. “Things like, ‘Who makes the better cookies to celebrate big events?’ or something like that.”

During Curiosity’s testing phase, team members took models of it and the much-smaller Opportunity out to the Dumont Dunes in the Mojave Desert — a traditional proving ground for Mars rovers — and raced them up the slope, Heverly said. Curiosity won. But there were no hard feelings.

“We definitely are all on the same team,” Heverly said.

For now, the teams remain distinct because Curiosity drivers are working on Mars time, throwing them out of sync with Earth’s 24-hour day. But once Curiosity drivers shift back to Earth time sometime before the end of the year, many team members hope they’ll be able to work with both rovers.

“It’s great to have another rover on the planet again,” said Julie Townsend, Opportunity’s lead driver. “Since we lost the Spirit rover a couple years ago, Opportunity’s been lonely, I think.”

Curiosity may now be playing the leading role at JPL and in the public eye, if its 1-million-plus Twitter followers are any indication. But Opportunity will always hold a special place in the hearts of rover drivers like Scott Maxwell.

“It’s very much like when you have a first car,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what any of your cars are after that, you always kind of love that first car.”

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration