India celebrates planting its flag on moon

A probe sent back pictures and other data India needs for a future moon landing.
A probe sent back pictures and other data India needs for a future moon landing. ISRO via EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

India rejoiced Saturday at joining an elite club by planting its flag on the moon as the country's space agency released the first pictures of the cratered surface taken by its maiden lunar mission.

A probe sent late Friday from the orbiting mother spacecraft took pictures and gathered other data India needs for a future moon landing as it plummeted to a crash-landing at the moon's south pole, said Indian Space Research Organization spokesman B.R. Guruprasad.

The box-shaped probe was painted with India's saffron, white and green flag, sparking celebrations in the country that is striving to become a world power.

"The tricolor has landed," the Hindustan Times said in a banner headline, while The Asian Age proclaimed "India is big cheese."

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. The moon mission comes just months after it finalized a deal with the United States that recognizes India as a nuclear power, and leaders hope the mission will further enhance its prestige.

"This momentous achievement shall be etched in the history of India as a grateful tribute to our scientific community for their resolute efforts to take India to a global leadership position," said Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party.

To date only the U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China — and now India — have sent missions to the moon.

But while the celebrations conjured up images akin to that of the U.S. flag unfurled on the moon by Apollo astronauts, India's flag is most likely scattered over a wide swath of the moon's Shackleton crater after the probe slammed into the surface at more than 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) per hour.

The violent landing was planned and Indian scientists hope to study the images and data sent back by the probe during its 25-minute descent to prepare for a future "soft" landing, Guruprasad told The Associated Press. It carried a video imaging system, a radar altimeter and a mass spectrometer.

The video imaging system took pictures of the moon's surface, while the altimeter measured the rate of descent of the probe and the mass spectrometer studied the extremely thin lunar atmosphere.

Guruprasad said the pictures that were released were raw images and that scientists had not yet analyzed the information sent by the probe.

It was the first stage of a two-year mission aimed at measuring not only the surface of the moon, but what lies beneath. The probe was one of 11 payloads on the spacecraft Chandrayaan-1. Chandrayaan means "moon craft" in ancient Sanskrit.

India plans to follow the mission by landing a rover on the moon in 2011 and, eventually, with a manned space program, though this has not been authorized yet.