NEW DELHI – India was set to launch its first lunar mission Wednesday, putting the country in an elite group of nations with the scientific know-how to reach the moon, while heating up a burgeoning Asian space race.
The Chandrayaan-1 will join Japanese and Chinese crafts in orbit around the moon for a two-year mission designed to map out the whole lunar surface.
Chandrayaan means "Moon Craft" in ancient Sanskrit.
As India's economy has boomed in recent years it has sought to convert its new found wealth — built on its high-tech sector — into political and military clout and stake a claim as a world leader.
It is hoping that a moon mission — coming just months after it finalized a deal with the United States that recognizes India as a nuclear power — will further enhance that status.
"It is a remarkable technological achievement for the country," said S. Satish, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, which plans to launch the 3,080-pound satellite from the Sriharikota space center in southern India at 06:20 a.m Wednesday (8:50 p.m. EDT Tuesday).
To date only the U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China have sent missions to the moon.
In the last year Asian nations have taken the lead in exploring the moon. In October 2007, Japan sent up the Kaguya spacecraft. A month later China's Chang'e-1 entered lunar orbit.
China, in particular, has been forging ahead in space.
Beijing sent shock waves through the region in 2003, when it became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space. It followed that last month with it's 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.
While this is India's first space expedition beyond Earth's orbit, the head of India's space agency believes it can quickly catch China, its rival for Asian leadership.
"Compared to China, we are better off in many areas," Indian Space Research Organization chairman G. Madhavan Nair said in an interview with India's Outlook magazine this week, citing India's advanced communication satellites and launch abilities.
India lags behind only because it has chosen not to focus on the more expensive manned space missions, he said. "But given the funds and necessary approvals we can easily catch up with our neighbor in this area."
The mission is not all about rivalry and prestige. Analysts say India stands to reap valuable rewards from the technology it develops.
"Each nation is doing its own thing to drive its research technology for the well-being of that nation," said Charles Vick, a space analyst for the Washington think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
"Traditionally, for every dollar put into space research, we get that much more back," he said.
India is also collaborating closely with other countries on the mission.
Of the 11 instruments carried by the satellite, five are Indian, three are from the European Space Agency, two from the U.S. and one from Bulgaria.
Among the goals of the US$80 million mission are mapping the moon, scanning for mineral deposits under the surface and testing systems for a future moon landing, according to the Indian space agency.
NASA is sending up a Mini Synthetic Aperture Radar that can search for ice — an important resource for any human settlements — under the lunar poles.
India plans to follow up this mission with landing a rover on the moon in 2011 and eventually a manned space program, though this has not been authorized yet.
Vick, the space analyst, said an Indian landing was inevitable.
"Where the unmanned goes, man will ultimately follow," he said. The United States is the only nation to have landed a man on the moon.
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 Satish.