An Indian mission to the Red Planet has launched successfully, carrying an unmanned probe that will take almost a year to arrive at its destination. New Delhi wants India to be the first Asian nation to reach Mars.
A rocket carrying the Mangalyaan mission probe blasted off into a slightly overcast sky at 2.38 p.m. local time (0908 GMT) from a spaceport on the eastern coastal island of Shriharikota.
"It's lift-off," said a commentator on state television, as the launch vehicle was monitored by dozens of scientists in the control room.
Soon after came the news that the rocket had “placed the Mars orbiter spacecraft very precisely into an elliptical orbit around Earth."
The probe, which weighs 1,350 kilograms (3,000 pound), was to be catapulted towards Mars after a series of short burns to raise its orbit.
The Mangalyaan ("Mars craft" in Hindi) vehicle must travel 780 million kilometers (485 million miles) over more than 300 days to reach an orbit around the planet next September.
"The biggest challenge will be precisely navigating the space craft to Mars," said chairman of the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO), K. Radhakrishnan. "We will know if we pass our examination on September 24, 2014."
The mission is the first by ISRO to aim to reach the Red Planet. No other space agency has been fully successful with first attempts at similar programs.
Gaseous signs of life
Mangalyaan's mission is to look for methane, which could indicate the existence of a primitive form of life on the planet. While clouds of the gas have been identified by telescopes, their presence has yet to be confirmed by a probe.
"We want to use the first opportunity to put a spacecraft and orbit it around Mars and, once it is there safely, then conduct a few meaningful experiments and energize the scientific community," said Radhakrishnan.
Success would make India's space agency the fourth in the world to reach the Red Planet, after previous missions by Europe, the Soviet Union and the US. It would also be seen as a symbol of regional prestige, making India the first Asian nation to reach the planet. Efforts by China, in 2011, and India, in 2003, ended in failure.
At just 4.5 billion rupees (54 million euros, $73 million), the mission costs a fraction of NASA's Maven Mars program, which is also due to launch this month. The Maven probe will focus on why Mars lost a large part of its atmosphere.
Analysts say that India could claim a large chunk of the global space market by maintaining a focus on low-cost technology.
The launch comes five years after India sent a probe called Chandrayaan to the moon, in a mission that found water there.
rc/tj (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)