Chennai: The country’s space programme takes a giant leap on Wednesday with the launch of its first lunar mission that marks India’s promotion to the same league as regional powerhouses Japan and China.
The unmanned lunar orbiting spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 is scheduled to blast off aboard an Indian-built rocket at 6.20am on Wednesday from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.
For India, the $80 million (Rs390 crore) mission puts the country on the inside track of a fast developing Asian space race. “It is a proud moment for us,” said science and technology minister Kapil Sibal.
As well as looking to carve out a larger slice of the commercial satellite launch market, India, Japan and China see their space programmes as an important symbol of their international stature and economic development.
The Chandrayaan-1 is being sent on a two-year orbital mission to provide a detailed map of the lunar surface’s mineral, chemical and topographical characteristics.
India first staked its case for a share of the commercial launch market by sending an Italian satellite into orbit in April last year. In January, it launched an Israeli spy satellite despite Iranian protests.
G.K. Menon, former head of the Indian Space Research Organisation, said the Chandrayaan-1 mission reflected the “remarkable success” of India’s domestic programme.
“After this, the next step will be sending a manned mission to the moon for which trials have already begun.”
India still has a long way to go to catch up with China which, together with the US, Russia and the European Space Agency, is already well established in the commercial launch sector.
Chinese officials have spoken of a manned mission to the moon in the future, following the US and the former Soviet Union, after carrying out a space walk last month.
A more immediate goal is to establish an orbiting space lab, with Beijing’s ambition to develop a full-fledged space station by 2020 to rival the International Space Station, a joint project involving the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and a clutch of European countries.
Japan has also been boosting its space programme and has set a goal of sending an astronaut to the moon by 2020.
Japan’s first lunar probe, Kaguya, was successfully launched in September last year, releasing two baby satellites which will be used to study the gravitational fields of the moon among other projects.
As well as the commercial ramifications, the development of a space race in Asia has security implications, with the potential for developing military applications such as intelligence gathering and space-based weapons.
Earlier this year, Japan scrapped a decades-old ban on the military use of space, hoping to remove any legal obstacles to building more advanced spy satellites.
India started its space programme in 1963, developing its own satellites and launch vehicles to reduce dependence on overseas agencies.