Scientists have better maps of distant Mars than the moon where astronauts have walked. But India hopes to change that with its first lunar mission.
Chandrayaan-1 - which means "Moon Craft" in ancient Sanskrit - launched from the Sriharikota space center in southern India early today in a two-year mission aimed at laying the groundwork for further Indian space expeditions.
Chief among the mission's goals is mapping not only the surface of the moon, but what lies beneath. India joined 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, won't jump in this race with its new lunar probe until next spring, but it is providing key mapping equipment for India's mission.
"It is a remarkable technological achievement for the country," said S. Satish, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, which plans to use the 3,080-pound lunar probe to create a high-resolution map of the lunar surface and what minerals are below. The mapping instruments are a joint project with NASA.
Until now, India's space launches have been more practical, with 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 United States, 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 United States did it more than four decades ago, analysts say current mapping equipment allows the exploration of new areas, including below the surface.
Of the 11 instruments carried by the satellite, five are Indian, three are from the European Space Agency and two from the United States.