Lunar mission boost to India’s space image

Chennai, October 21:

India’s space programme takes a giant leap tomorrow with the launch of its first lunar mission

that marks promotion to the same league as regional powerhouses Japan and China.

The unmanned lunar orbiting spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 is scheduled to blast off aboard an Indian-built rocket at 6:20am tomorrow from Sriharikota on India’s southeastern coast.

For India, the $80-million mission puts the country on the inside track of a fast-developing Asian space race.

“It is a proud moment for us,” said Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal.

As well as looking to carve out a larger slice of the lucrative commercial satellite launch market, India, Japan and China also see their space programmes as an important symbol of their international stature and economic development.

The Chandrayaan-1 is being sent on a two-year orbital mission to provide a detailed map of the lunar surface’s mineral, chemical and topographical characteristics. India first staked its case for a share of the commercial launch market by sending an Italian satellite into orbit in April last year. In January, it launched an Israeli spy satellite in the face of Iranian protests.

GK Menon, former head of the Indian Space Research Organisation, said the Chandrayaan-1 mission reflected the “remarkable success” of India’s domestic programme.

“After this, the next step will be sending a manned mission to the moon for which trials have already begun,” Menon said.

India still has a long way to go to catch up with China which, together with the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency, is already well established in the commercial launch sector.

Chinese officials have spoken of a manned mission to the moon in the future, after following the United States and the former Soviet Union last month by carrying out a space walk.

A more immediate goal is the establishment of an orbiting space lab, with Beijing’s long-term ambition to develop a fully fledged space station by 2020 to rival the International Space Station, a joint project involving the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and a clutch of European countries. Japan has also been boosting its space programme and has set a goal of sending an astronaut to the moon by 2020.

Japan’s first lunar probe, Kaguya, was successfully launched in September last year, releasing

two baby satellites which will be used to study the gravity fields of the moon among other projects.

As well as the commercial ramifications, the development of a space race in Asia has security implications, with the potential for developing military applications such as intelligence gathering and space-based weapons.

Earlier this year, Japan scrapped a decades-old ban on the military use of space, hoping to remove any legal obstacles to building more advanced spy satellites.

South Korea, a late starter in the space race, has launched three commercial satellites since 1995 and launched its first military communications satellite in 2006. India started its space programme in 1963. Officials at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota were optimistic that there would be no delays in tomorrow’s launch.

“Rain does not matter for us as the spacecraft is fully rain proof,” said the centre’s associate director MYS Prasad.