India launches probe for moon exploration

India launched its first unmanned spacecraft to orbit the moon early today, part of an effort to assert its power in space and claim some of the business opportunities there.

Scientists, clapping and cheering, tracked the ascent on computer screens as they lost sight of the rocket in heavy clouds.

“This is a historic moment for India,” Indian Space Research Organization Chairman G. Madhavan Nair said.

“We have started our journey to the moon and the first leg has gone perfectly well,” he said, adding that they hoped to “unravel the mystery of the moon.”

The mission is scheduled to last two years, prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the moon and prospect the lunar surface for natural resources, including uranium, a coveted fuel for nuclear power plants, Indian officials said.

The spacecraft, launched today from the Sriharikota space center in southern India, will not land on the moon, though it is supposed to send a small “impactor” probe to the surface.

This morning's launch of Chandrayaan-1, as the vehicle is called – roughly translated as Moon Craft-1 – comes about a year after China's first moon mission.

Talk of a space race with China could not be contained, even as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was due to visit Beijing later this week.

The first Indian lunar voyage is carrying two devices from NASA. One, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3, will assess mineral composition of the moon from orbit. The other, the Mini-SAR, will look for ice deposits in the moon's polar regions.

The mission, in addition to demonstrating technological capacity, can potentially yield commercial gains for India's space program.

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

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

The Associated Press contributed.