India Launches First Unmanned Moon Mission

India launched its first mission to the moon Wednesday, rocketing a satellite up into the pale dawn sky in a two-year mission to redraw maps of the lunar surface.

"Lift off is normal," said mission control as the Chandrayaan-1 blasted off from the Sriharikota space center in southern India. Chandrayaan means "Moon Craft" in ancient Sanskrit.

Scientists, clapping and cheering, tracked the ascent on computer screens as they lost sight of the rocket in heavy clouds that covered the launch pad.

"This is a historic moment for India," said the Indian Space Research Organization's chairman, G. Madhavan Nair.

"We have started our journey to the moon and the first leg has gone perfectly well," he said, adding that they hoped the mission would "unravel the mystery of the moon."

Chief among the mission's goals is mapping not only the surface of the moon, but what lies beneath. Scientists have better maps of distant Mars than the moon, where astronauts have walked. But India now hopes to change that.

India plans to use the 3,080-pound lunar probe to create a high-resolution map of the lunar surface and what minerals are below. Two of the mapping instruments are a joint project with NASA.

If the mission is successful, India will join what's shaping up as a 21st century space race with Chinese and Japanese crafts already in orbit around the moon.

The United States, which won the 1960s race to send men to the moon, will not jump into this race with its new lunar probe until next spring, but it is providing key mapping equipment for India's mission.

As India's economy has boomed in recent years, it has sought to convert its new found wealth - built on its high-tech sector - into political and military clout and stake a claim as a world leader. It is hoping that a moon mission will further enhance that status, coming just months after it finalized a deal with the United States that recognizes India as a nuclear power.

Until now, India's space launches have been more practical, carrying weather warning satellites and communication systems, said former NASA associate administrator Scott Pace, director of space policy at the George Washington University.

"You're seeing India lifting its sights," Pace said.

To date only the U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China have sent missions to the moon.

While much of the technology involved in reaching the moon has not changed since the Soviet Union and the U.S. did it more than four decades ago, analysts say current mapping equipment allows the exploration of new areas, including below the surface.

In the last year, Asian nations have taken the lead in exploring the moon. In October 2007, Japan sent up the Kaguya spacecraft. A month later, China's Chang'e-1 entered lunar orbit.

Those missions took high resolution pictures of the moon, but are not as comprehensive as the pictures will be from the mission by Chandrayaan-1 and NASA's upcoming half-a-billion-dollar Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Pace said. The most comprehensive maps of the moon were made about 40 years ago during the Apollo era, he said.

"We don't really have really good modern maps of the moon with modern instrument," Pace said. "The quality of the Martian maps, I would make a general argument, is superior to what we have of the moon."

NASA has put probes on Mars' frigid polar region, but not on the rugged poles of the moon. Yet the moon's south pole is where NASA is considering setting up an eventual human-staffed lunar outpost, Pace said.

The moon's south pole is "certainly more rugged than where Neil Armstrong landed. It's more interesting. It's more dangerous," Pace said. "We need better maps."

And while the moon race in the 1960s was a two-country sprint between the United States and the U.S.S.R, more countries are involved this time. China, in particular, has been forging ahead in space.

Beijing sent shock waves through the region in 2003, when it became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space. It followed that last month with its first spacewalk.

More ominously, last year China also blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile, the first such test ever conducted by any nation, including the United States and Russia.

While this is India's first space expedition beyond Earth's orbit, the head of India's space agency believes it can quickly catch China, its rival for Asian leadership.

"Compared to China, we are better off in many areas," said in an interview with India's Outlook magazine this week, citing India's advanced communication satellites and launch abilities.

India lags behind only because it has chosen not to focus on the more expensive manned space missions, he said. "But given the funds and necessary approvals we can easily catch up with our neighbor in this area."

India is also collaborating closely with other countries on the mission.

Of the 11 instruments carried by the satellite, five are Indian, three are from the European Space Agency, two from the U.S. including radar that can search for ice under lunar poles - and one from Bulgaria.

The US$80 million mission will test systems for a future moon landing. India hopes to land a rover on the moon in 2011 and eventually launch a manned space program, though this has not yet been authorized.

And the Indian space agency was already dreaming of more.

"Space is the frontier for mankind in the future. If we want to go beyond the moon, we have to go there first," said Indian space agency spokesman S. Satish.