India launches first unmanned moon mission
Gavin Rabinowitz and Seth Borenstein (AP)
- Slideshow: India Moon Mission
Indian Space Research Organization chairman G. Madhavan Nair said the mission is to "unravel the mystery of the moon."
Chandrayaan-1, India's maiden lunar mission, seen soon after launch at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, north of Chennai, India, 10/22/08. Rocketing the satellite up into the pale dawn sky in a two-year mission to redraw maps of the lunar surface (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi).
To date only the U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China have sent missions to the moon. As India's economy has boomed in recent years, it has sought to convert its newfound wealth — built on the nation's high-tech sector — into political and military clout. It is hoping that the moon mission — coming just months after finalizing a deal with the United States that recognizes India as a nuclear power — will further enhance its status.
Until now, India's space launches have mainly carried 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. 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 new mapping equipment allows the exploration of new areas, including below the surface.
India plans to use the 3,080-pound lunar probe to create a high-resolution map of the lunar surface and the minerals below. Two of the mapping instruments are a joint project with NASA. In the last year, Asian nations have taken the lead in moon exploration. In October 2007, Japan sent up the Kaguya spacecraft. A month later, China's Chang'e-1 entered lunar orbit.
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."
The Indian mission is not all about rivalry and prestige. Analysts say India stands to reap valuable rewards from the technology it develops and, according to Pace, it already shows increased confidence in difficult engineering and quality control.
(AP writer Seth Borenstein reported from Washington)