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.