NASA is expecting throngs of people to attend the launch of its newest Mars rover on Saturday (Nov. 26), according to agency officials.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), or Curiosity rover, is scheduled to lift off on Saturday at 10:02 a.m. EST (1502 GMT) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The car-size rover will launch into space atop an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket.
The crowd size is expected to break previous records for the launch of a robotic spacecraft, NASA officials have said.
"We're expecting about 13,500 people on NASA Kennedy Space Center property for the Mars Science Laboratory launch," agency spokesman Allard Beutel told SPACE.com. "That's VIPs, media at the press site and guests at our visitor complex."
And that's just the start. Early estimates do not take into account other spectators who could catch a glimpse of the launch from viewing points outside the perimeter of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center.
"We could have thousands more people in the area watching the launch since it's around a holiday weekend and many people have family in town," Beutel said.
Space shuttle launches have typically been a big draw for NASA, with hundreds of thousands of spectators flocking to Florida's Space Coast to watch an orbiter blast off. When the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off on the last ever space shuttle flight in July, the agency estimated that between 750,000 to 1 million people watched the historic final launch in person.
Following the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, NASA hopes to carry some of that interest over to its robotic planetary science missions, which have traditionally drawn fewer spectators than manned launches, officials have said.
This summer, when the Juno spacecraft launched to Jupiter, the agency welcomed 12,300 spectators at the launch, which surpassed the self-assigned goal of attracting 10,000 people to view the liftoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The state-of-the-art Mars Science Laboratory is NASA's most sophisticated Mars mission to date. Tipping the scales at 1 ton, the Mini Cooper-size Curiosity rover is equipped with a suite of instruments that will study the Martian environment for clues of the planet's potential habitability.
NASA began planning the $2.5 billion mission in 2003. After Saturday's launch, the spacecraft will embark on an 8 1/2-month cruise to the Red Planet, with a planned arrival in August 2012. Once on the surface, the rover will study the planet's geological history, and whether it is or has ever been habitable.
While scientists have been eagerly awaiting the launch of MSL, the mission has also generated fascination among members of the public.
"What's not to be excited about?" Beutel said. "It's a rover the size of a compact car that's the most capable laboratory ever sent to another planet, which will be delivered by a first-of-its-kind landing system, a 'sky crane.' And it'll search for evidence Mars had environments favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life. From a space exploration and discovery point of view, that all seems worthy of being excited."