The unmanned Chandayaan-1 spacecraft blasted off from a launch pad in Sriharikota in southern India, shortly after dawn, Wednesday, as the nation watched on television.
Scientists applauded and hugged each other. The head of the Indian Space Research Organization, G. Madhavan Nair, calls it a perfect launch and says everything is going according to plan.
It was clearly a moment of celebration for scientists in charge of the mission. The Chandrayaan-I, which means Moon Vehicle, is being sent on a two-year mission to orbit the Moon and scan its chemical and mineral composition. A key objective will be to look for water. The spacecraft carries 11 instruments. Five are Indian, three are from the European Space Agency and two from the United States. A gadget from the spacecraft will land on the Moon to pick up some dust for analysis.
This is India’s first space mission beyond the Earth’s orbit. If successful, the $79 million project will be a major step forward for India’s space program.
It is also being seen as an effort by India to catch up with Japan and China, which have already sent unmanned spacecraft to orbit the Moon. In particular, China has been forging ahead in space exploration, putting astronauts in space and carrying out its first spacewalk.
India, too, has drawn up ambitious programs. It plans to send an astronaut into space by 2014 and a manned mission to the Moon by 2020.
India started its first space program in 1963, developing its own satellites and launch vehicles, and has a foot-hold in the multibillion-dollar commercial space-launch business.