In the latest sign of its growing stature as a science and technology powerhouse, India on Wednesday successfully launched its first moon rocket.
Following a 52-hour countdown, the unmanned Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft lifted off from Satish Dhawan Space Center on the island of Sriharikota in southern India at 6:22 a.m. local time. The craft pierced through cloudy skies atop the 320-ton Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle to begin a scheduled two-and-a-half year moon mission.
The mission marks the Indian Space Research Organization's first attempt to place a spacecraft in lunar orbit. The United States, Russia, China, and Japan are the only other nations to have successfully launched moon rockets.
Upon obtaining orbit 100 kilometers above the moon, Chandrayaan-1 will deploy a range of scientific instruments to observe and study Earth's closest celestial neighbor. On board are X-ray and infrared spectrometers, an atom analyzer, a radiation monitor, radar, and a mineralogy mapping instrument that was developed in the United States by Brown University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Chandrayaan-1 will scan the lunar surface for rare potential energy sources such as helium-3 -- a possible alternative to fossil fuels.
The spacecraft is carrying a total of 11 scientific payloads.
Many of the components used in the mission were developed in India at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center in Thiruvananthapuram, including the Polar launch vehicle and its Inertial Systems Unit. Chandrayaan-1's terrain mapping camera and hyperspectral imaging instruments were also developed in the country.
Despite the persistence of staggering poverty in many areas of the country, India is emerging as a world leader in science and technology. Many top U.S. tech firms, including IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle, rely heavily on the country's huge base of skilled programmers for software development. IT consulting firm Accenture now maintains more employees in India than in the United States.
India is also establishing itself as a leader in a number of other high-tech industries, including pharmaceutical and life sciences. The Asian Development Bank estimates that India's gross domestic product is on pace for 7.4% growth in 2008.