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India sets its sights on the Moon

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Sriharikota

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Indian space countdown begins

On an island off the Bay of Bengal in southern India, the mood is upbeat but also slightly tense.

This is the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota - India's launch pad for its satellite missions.

It's been prepared for what is the country's most ambitious space venture to date, an unmanned mission to the Moon.

Its indigenously built satellite, Chandrayaan-1 - the name is Sanskrit for lunar craft - blasted off on an Indian-built rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, early on Wednesday.

For the country's space scientists, it marks a major milestone.

India has successfully developed its rocket and satellite technology. More than a dozen Indian satellites currently orbit the Earth.

But this latest mission is the first time it is sending a spacecraft beyond the Earth's orbit.

If successful, India joins the Asian powers China and Japan, which have already undertaken their own lunar missions.

But it's doing it at a fraction of the cost - $80m compared to China's $187m lunar probe launched last year and Japan's $480m Kayuga mission.

Search for water

Chandrayaan-1 was launched on India's PSLV, which has had only one failure in 13 launches.

In April, it successfully launched 10 satellites in one go, shattering a world record held by Russia.

So why is there renewed interest in the Moon, 36 years after the pioneering Apollo manned missions?

Chandrayaan 1 in the clean room (ISRO)
Chandrayaan is India's most ambitious space venture to date

Indian scientists say there is still a lot to be learnt about Earth's nearest neighbour.

"There is a wealth of information that exists about the Moon. At the same time, there is also certain questions which are not answered fully," says MYS Prasad, associate director of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre.

"For example, 41% of the Moon's surface cannot be observed directly from the Earth. The experiments that Chandrayaan will carry out are designed to enhance this knowledge."

The mission's main objectives are to create a three-dimensional atlas of the Moon, study its chemical and mineral composition, look for Helium-3 - which could be a future energy source - and search for the presence of water-ice.

Chandrayaan-1 will also carry a Moon Impactor - a smaller satellite that will be ejected on to the lunar surface and will be used for a closer inspection.

An idea suggested by the former Indian President, APJ Abdul Kalam, the impactor will also be painted with the Indian flag and thereby, symbolically, it will be "planted" on to the Moon.

International interest

But this is more than just a national project.

The satellite is carrying a total of 11 instruments, including high-resolution cameras and spectrometers that will help it in analysing the lunar surface.

While five of the instruments are Indian, six of them have been supplied by US space agency (Nasa), the European Space Agency (Esa) and Bulgaria.

Chandrayaan 1 on launcher
The mission will launch from an island in the Bay of Bengal

They are being carried free of cost - an indication of how much India wants this mission to be seen as a collaborative one that can benefit everyone.

Some, like Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma - the only Indian astronaut to be sent into space - believes this is the way forward.

"During the Cold War era, there were ideologies attached to successes of this kind. No longer. I believe the time for competition is over," he says.

"These kinds of missions and aims are beyond the capacity of any one country. They have to be collaborative."

But there are some who believe that the mission is being driven by more than just altruism.

In their eyes, India is aiming for a slice of the lucrative commercial satellite launch business.

Deep Space Network (BBC)
Chandrayaan will be monitored from India's Deep Space Network
"To be in the commercial satellite launch business you need to prove yourself. Each of these satellites is very costly and a foreign country will be very careful before they entrust (one) in your care," says N Madhavan, senior editor at Business Today magazine.

It's one reason why India believes that the investment it is making in its space programme will pay off in the long term, despite the huge costs for a country where at least a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

It makes for some startling incongruities.

Forty kilometres south of the city of Bangalore lies the village of Byalalu set amidst rolling hills.

A freshly built tarmac road ribbons its way through farmland and dusty villages. Children play by its side and water buffaloes draw wooden carts.

But just ahead, rising out of the countryside is a majestic white dish antenna, 32m in diameter.

This is India's Deep Space Network. For the next two years, scientists and technicians here will monitor Chandrayaan-1 and download its data.

For the moment, local villagers are excited - if for no other reason than because the station has given them some immediate work.

Many of them are helping to build the roads and buildings that are still not quite finished.

That itself, for many here, justifies the mission.

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