India launches unmanned moon mission

Following in the footsteps of regional rivals China and Japan, India has launched its first unmanned moon mission.

Following in the footsteps of regional rivals China and Japan, India has launched its first unmanned moon mission.

The unmanned rocket Chandrayaan-1 lifted off at about 6:20 a.m. local time Wednesday (8:50 p.m. ET Tuesday) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the island of Sriharikota, off the Bay of Bengal.

The rocket, which cost 3.86 billion rupees ($94.4 million) and has a takeoff weight of more than 1.3 tonnes, will orbit the moon on a two-year mission.

The rocket is carrying 11 scientific payloads: five from India, two from the U.S. and one each from Britain, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria. India's space agency said the probe will map a three-dimensional atlas of the moon and study the chemical and mineral composition of its surface.

India is the third Asian country to send an unmanned mission into lunar orbit, as Japan and China both successfully launched lunar probes in 2007. The United States, Europe and the former Soviet Union have also sent probes that have orbited or landed on the moon.

India has successfully launched 16 satellites, either from their own launch pads or piggybacked on U.S., Soviet or European shuttles or rockets, but its homegrown space exploration program is just beginning.

Wednesday's launch was the first step of the country's long-term ambitions to conduct a manned moon mission by 2020.

India also has announced plans for the launch of Chandrayaan-2 — which is expected to land a rover on the moon by 2012 — and also a manned space mission by 2015 using Indian systems and technology.

In 1984, Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to go into space, when he travelled aboard a Soviet spacecraft. The first Indian-born woman to travel into space was Kalpana Chawla, who was one of seven astronauts to die when the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry in 2003.