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Science

India launches mission to moon's south pole with lunar lander

Country aims to join Russia, US and China as world's fourth space power

Indian Space Research Organization's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) MkIII-M1 at its launch pad in Sriharikota, an island off India's southeastern coast.   © AP

NEW DELHI -- India on Monday launched an ambitious mission to soft-land on the surface of the moon and deploy a rover, seeking to become only the fourth country to do so after Russia, the U.S. and China.

Chandrayaan-2, Sanskrit for "moon vehicle," lifted off at 2:43 p.m. local time from the spaceport of Sriharikota in the country's south.

The first attempt to launch the mission on July 15 was aborted at the eleventh hour due to a technical glitch. An expert committee, formed to analyze the issue and suggest remedial action, said it had "identified the root cause of the technical snag and all corrective actions had been implemented," according to a brief statement from India's space agency on July 18.

"Special moments that will be etched in the annals of our glorious history!" Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Monday. He added the launch "illustrates the prowess of our scientists and the determination of [1.3 billion] Indians to scale new frontiers of science. Every Indian is immensely proud today."

Other than being India's maiden rover mission, it is also the world's first expedition to the moon's unexplored south polar region, known as the dark side, according to the Indian Space Research Organization, the agency behind the lunar probe.

"This place [is a more shadowy] region of the moon and we are expecting a lot of new science [to emerge]," according to ISRO Chairman K. Sivan. "The mission will create history not only for India but for the entire global community."

The latest lunar probe comes 11 years after India's Chandrayaan-1 mission launched in October 2008 that helped confirm frozen water deposits on the moon. That mission orbited earth's only natural satellite but did not land on its surface.

People celebrate as they watch a live broadcast of India's second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, inside an electronics showroom in Kolkata, India on July 22.   © Reuters

"The U.S. was the first country [in 1969] to have landed a man on the surface of the moon -- Neil Armstrong... He had a walk around but he missed seeing what the Chandrayaan-1 saw -- the presence of water on the surface of the moon," said Jitendra Singh, a minister, last month, while exuding confidence that the second lunar probe would achieve a breakthrough too.

Chandrayaan-2 contains three components -- a rover, lander and orbiter -- with a total composite module mass of about 3.8 tons. It is expected to land on the moon, which is 384,000 km from the earth, in September.

The total cost of the mission was about 10 billion rupees ($145.6 million). ISRO said the aim of the mission was to find rock-forming elements like magnesium, iron and calcium and to identify minerals, helium and water, among other things.

India successfully tested an antisatellite missile in March, becoming the fourth country -- after the U.S., Russia and China -- to demonstrate that capability.

India's space plans have the full backing of Modi. The country also aims to send a human mission into space before August 2022, India's 75th anniversary of independence from British rule. It also has plans to launch its own space station -- a project that could take about a decade to complete.

"The mission of the Indian space program is mainly to make use of space technology for unserved and underserved people ... in the areas of safety, security and quality of life," Sivan said, adding that satellites can capture oncoming cyclones, allowing the government to evacuate danger zones and save lives.

The latest lunar project, meanwhile, will also cement India's position as a space power.

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