New Delhi Scientists have better maps of distant Mars than the moon where astronauts have walked. But India hopes to change that with its first lunar mission.
Chandrayaan-1 - which means "Moon Craft" in ancient Sanskrit - launched from the Sriharikota space center in southern India early this morning in a two-year mission aimed at laying the groundwork for further Indian space expeditions.
Chief among the mission's goals is mapping not only the surface of the moon but also what lies beneath. India joined what's shaping up as a 21st century space race with Chinese and Japanese crafts already in orbit around the moon.
The United States, which won the 1960s race to send men to the moon, won't jump in this race with its new lunar probe until next spring, but it is providing key mapping equipment for India's mission.
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 use the 3,080-pound lunar probe to create a high-resolution map of the lunar surface and what minerals are below. Two of the mapping instruments are a joint project with NASA.
Until now, India's space launches have been more practical, with 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.
To date only the U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China have sent missions to the moon.
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 4 decades ago, analysts say current mapping equipment allows the exploration of new areas, including below the surface.
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.
Those missions took high-resolution pictures of the moon but aren't as comprehensive as will be Chandrayaan-1 or NASA's upcoming half-a-billion-dollar Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Pace said. The most comprehensive maps of the moon were made about 40 years ago during the Apollo era, he said.
"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."
Beyond 3-D mapping the moon and scanning for mineral deposits, the $80 million mission will test systems for a future moon landing, the Indian space agency said.