India joins space race as Moon mission blasts off

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The Independent Online

India has successfully launched its first unmanned Moon mission, joining China in an Asian space race. Chandrayaan-1 (moon vehicle), built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), blasted off from a space centre on the south-eastern coast shortly after dawn yesterday.

The launch comes less than a fortnight after India agreed a nuclear energy co-operation deal with the United States, ending decades of isolation and making it a de facto nuclear power.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said: "Our scientific community has once again done the country proud and the entire nation salutes them." Seema Desai, of the political risk consultants Eurasia Group, said: "India signals that it could be a much more important player geopolitically and regionally. The mission and the nuclear deal have together put India in a different place."

Barring any technical failure, the spacecraft will reach the lunar orbit and spend two years scanning the Moon for any evidence of water and precious metals. A gadget called the Moon Impactor Probe will detach and land on the Moon to kick up some dust, while instruments in the craft analyse the particles, ISRO says. A principal objective is to look for helium 3, an isotope which is very rare on Earth but is sought to power nuclear fusion.