India launched its first mission to the moon Wednesday, rocketing a satellite up into the pale dawn sky in a two-year mission to redraw maps of the lunar surface.
Clapping and cheering scientists tracked the ascent on computer screens after they lost sight of Chandrayaan-1 from the Sriharikota space center in southern India. Chandrayaan means "Moon Craft" in ancient Sanskrit.
Indian Space Research Organization chairman G. Madhavan Nair said the mission is to "unravel the mystery of the moon."
"We have started our journey to the moon and the first leg has gone perfectly well," he said.
Mapping what's beneath surface
Chief among the mission's goals is mapping not only the surface of the moon, but what lies beneath. If successful, India will join what's shaping up as a 21st century space race with Chinese and Japanese crafts already in orbit around the moon.
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.
Those missions took high-resolution pictures of the moon, but are not as comprehensive as Chandrayaan-1 will be or NASA's half-a-billion-dollar Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scheduled to be launched next year, Pace said. The most comprehensive maps of the moon were made about 40 years ago during the Apollo era, he said.
'Don't have really good modern maps'
"We don't really have really good modern maps of the moon with modern instrument," Pace said. "The quality of the Martian maps, I would make a general argument, is superior to what we have of the moon."
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."
Beijing in 2003 became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space. It followed that last month with its first spacewalk.
More ominously, last year China also blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile, the first such test ever conducted by any nation, including the United States and Russia.
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.
The $80 million mission will test systems for a future moon landing, with plans to land a rover on the moon in 2011 and eventually a manned space program, though this has not been authorized yet.
And the Indian space agency was already dreaming of more.
"Space is the frontier for mankind in the future. If we want to go beyond the moon, we have to go there first," said Indian space agency spokesman S. Satish.