NEW DELHI: India launched its first unmanned spacecraft to orbit the moon early Wednesday, part of an effort to assert its power in space and claim some of the business opportunities there.
The Indian mission is scheduled to last two years, prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the moon and prospect the lunar surface for natural resources, including uranium, a coveted fuel for nuclear power plants, according to the Indian Space Research Organization.
The spacecraft will not land on the moon, though it is supposed to send a small "impactor" probe to the surface.
The launching of Chandrayaan-1, as the vehicle is called roughly translated as Moon Craft-1 comes about a year after China's first moon mission.
Talk of a space race with China could not be contained, even as Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, was due to visit Beijing later in the week.
"China has gone earlier, but today we are trying to catch them, catch that gap, bridge the gap," Bhaskar Narayan, a director at the Indian space agency, was quoted by Reuters as having said.
The first Indian lunar voyage is carrying two devices from NASA. One, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3, will assess mineral composition of the moon from orbit. The other, the Mini-SAR, will look for ice deposits in the moon's polar regions.
Chandrayaan-1 was launched from a research station in Sriharikota, a barrier island off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
The moon mission, in addition to demonstrating technological capacity, can potentially yield commercial gains for India's space program. India's ability to put satellites into orbit has already resulted in lucrative deals; for example, Israel has sent up a satellite by means of an Indian launcher.
"It is proof of India's technical capability in an advanced area of science," said Dipankar Banerjee, a retired army general who is the director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies here. "India wants to be counted as one of the emerging players in Asia. Space is, of course, an important part of power projection."
The mission is not without domestic critics. Bharat Karnad, a strategic affairs analyst who frequently finds fault with the Congress Party-led coalition government, called the mission a "grandiloquent" effort designed to catch up with a far more advanced Chinese space program. "It is kind of a prestige project the government has gotten into," Karnad said. "This is misuse of resources that this country can ill afford at this point."
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