India chases China to the moon

India launched its first unmanned moon mission today following in the footsteps of rival China, as the emerging Asian power celebrated its space ambitions and scientific prowess.

Chandrayaan-1 (Moon vehicle), a cuboid spacecraft built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) blasted off from a southern Indian space centre shortly after dawn in a boost for the country’s ambitions to gain more global space business.

“What we have started is a remarkable journey,” G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of ISRO, told reporters.

The operation is ostensibly about mapping the moon, but the mission comes on the heels of China’s first space walk last month, when Chinese astronauts were feted as national heroes.

India does not want to fall behind in an Asian race to space that could have technological and military implications. There is disquiet in the West that China has military ambitions in space, with developments like anti-satellite missiles.

India’s national television channels broadcast the countdown to the launch live. Some scientists thumped their chests, hugged each other and clapped as the rocket shot up into space.

Greeted with patriotism in the media, the launch appeared to have distracted India from an economic slowdown, collapsing stock prices and outbreaks of ethnic and religious violence.

Perhaps remarkably in a nation where hundreds of millions of people live in poverty and millions of children are malnourished, the cost of the mission has scarcely been questioned.

“Destination Moon … Historic Day For India” blazed one TV channel on its screen.

Barring any technical failure, the spacecraft will reach the lunar orbit and spend two years scanning the moon for any evidence of water and precious metals.

A gadget called the Moon Impactor Probe will detach and land on the moon to kick up some dust, while instruments in the craft analyse the particles, ISRO says.

A principal objective is to look for Helium 3, an isotope which is very rare on earth but is sought to power nuclear fusion and could be a valuable source of energy in the future, some scientists believe.

It is thought to be more plentiful on the moon, but still rare and very difficult to extract.

India’s project cost $79 million, considerably less than the Chinese and Japanese probes in 2007 and ISRO says the moon mission will pave the way for India to claim a bigger chunk of the global space business.

ISRO scientists visited temples to seek the blessings of Hindu gods before the launch, and afterwards some expressed relief that rain had held off until the rocket was in space.

“The rain gods have been kind to us,” Madhavan said.

For many proud Indians, the launch is another notch in the country’s global ambitions. India recently signed a civil nuclear deal with the United States, making it a de facto nuclear power.

“I’m very proud,” said Sunil Tambe, a taxi driver in Mumbai. “It means India can do these big projects and I think it will also benefit us because there will be more information and we can learn new things.”

In April, India sent 10 satellites into orbit from a single rocket, and ISRO says it is plans more launches before a proposed manned mission to space and then onto Mars in four years time.

“With China forging ahead in the space field, India cannot afford to lag far behind,” wrote security analyst Ajey Lele in The Indian Express.

ISRO is collaborating with a number of countries, including Israel on a project to carry an ultra-violet telescope in an Indian satellite within a year.

It is also building a tropical weather satellite with France, collaborating with Japan to improve disaster management from space, and developing a heavy lift satellite launcher, which it hopes to use to launch heavier satellites by 2010.

India has launched 10 remote sensing satellites since 1998, has several broadcast satellites in space to control 170 transponders and has also launched light-weight satellites for Belgium, Germany, Korea, Japan and France.