Judging by a new set of tracks, NASA's Perseverance rover appears it may have taken a brief detour to Walt Disney World in Florida, despite it being on Mars for the past two years.
Guests visiting EPCOT can now come across a tire tread like that left by the six-wheeled rover outside of the theme park's Mission: SPACE attraction. Alas, the marks, which made their debut on Wednesday (Oct. 4) — the first day of World Space Week — were not a sign of Perseverance taking an interplanetary vacation, but rather the result of a recent collaboration between Disney Imagineers and NASA engineers.
"Walt Disney Imagineering and NASA combined the magic of space and Disney to update an in-park display recreating the surface of Mars in Mission: SPACE," the Disney World Resort announced Wednesday in a social media post.
Embedded in the ground, the new exhibit replicates a circular swath of the Martian surface, across which it appears one of Perseverance's tires has driven. The rover also looks to have dropped two of its sample tubes that it has been using to cache rock and soil to be returned to Earth by a follow-on mission.
A plaque adorning the exhibit displays an image of Perseverance and notes Feb. 18, 2021 as the date the robotic rover landed on Mars.
"Perseverance is the first of an international team of robots. Its job is to collect samples of Mars rocks to be returned to Earth to answer the question: Was there ever life on Mars?" the plaque reads.
To create the new display, Disney borrowed a prototype rover wheel from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where Perseverance was built and tested before its launch and from where its mission is managed today. NASA also provided a 3D print file to recreate the sample tubes and images taken by Perseverance for Disney artisans to use when modeling the Martian surface.
The exhibit is not the first time that a rover has left its tracks at Mission: SPACE.
When the new pavilion opened on Aug. 15, 2003, JPL arranged for an engineering model of its Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity to make a ceremonial pass through wet cement. The treads it left were placed on display along with a plaque inscribed with the words of then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, "We're back ... and we're on Mars."
The Spirit and Opportunity plaque remained in place for 20 years until this past August, when Disney removed it while conducting repairs to the Mission: SPACE entranceway. At the time, Disney had no comment on the tracks' disappearance.
Disney developed the Mission: SPACE attraction with input from NASA astronauts and scientists. When it first opened, the ride provided guests with "authentic NASA-style training on a thrilling ride to Mars" by using a centrifuge to produce similar G-forces to those experienced during a spacecraft's launch and re-entry. In 2017, Disney introduced a second, less-intense experience that takes guests on simulated flight into Earth orbit.
In addition to the tracks, the Mission: SPACE courtyard is also decorated with plaques bearing quotes associated with and about space exploration. In 2007, Disney honored educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan by adding her words to the attraction's entranceway wall, "Reach for your dreams ... the sky is no limit."
In September 2021, the Mission: SPACE pavilion was expanded to include a restaurant, Space 220, which takes guests on a simulated space elevator ride to a space station where they then can dine while watching Earth rotate below.
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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.