India mission to Mars blasts off successfully

India successfully launched its first mission to Mars on Tuesday, aiming to become the only Asian nation to reach the Red Planet with a programme showcasing its low-cost space technology.

"It's lift off," said a commentator on state television as the red-and-black rocket blasted into a slightly overcast sky on schedule at 02:38 pm (0908 GMT) from the southern spaceport in Sriharikota.

The 350-tonne launch vehicle carrying an unmanned probe was monitored by dozens of tense-looking scientists in white lab coats who faced their most daunting task since India began its space programme in 1963.

The country has never before attempted inter-planetary travel, and more than half of all missions to Mars have ended in failure, including China's in 2011 and Japan's in 2003.

After 44 minutes, applause rippled around the control room after monitoring ships stationed in the South Pacific reported that the spacecraft had successfully completed the first stage of its 300-day journey.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K. Radhakrishnan slapped a colleague on the back and said he was "extremely happy" to announce that the rocket had placed the probe in an orbit around Earth.

The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as "Mangalyaan" in India, was revealed only 15 months ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, shortly after China's attempt flopped when it failed to leave Earth's atmosphere.

The timing and place of the announcement -- in an Independence Day speech -- led to speculation that India was seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbour, despite denials from ISRO.

The gold-coloured probe, the size of a small car, will aim to detect methane in the Martian atmosphere. It has been hurriedly assembled and was carried into orbit by a rocket much smaller than US or Russian equivalents.

Lacking the power to fly directly, the spacecraft will orbit Earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from our planet's gravitational pull.

Only then will it begin the second stage of its journey which will test India's scientists to the full, five years after they sent a probe called Chandrayaan to the moon.

The cost of the Mars mission is 4.5 billion rupees ($73 million), less than a sixth of the 455 million dollars earmarked for a Mars probe by NASA which will launched later this month.

"We didn't believe they'd be able to launch this early," project scientist for the NASA Mars probe, Joe Grebowsky, told AFP before blastoff. "If it's successful, it's fantastic."

He underlined that Mars, which has a complicated orbit meaning it is between 50-400 million kilometres from Earth, was a far more complex prospect compared with a moon mission.

"When you shoot a rocket at Mars you have to take into account that Mars is going to move a good deal before you get there. The moon is fairly close," he said.

There have been recent setbacks for India too, including when Chandrayaan lost contact with its controllers in 2009. Another launch vehicle blew up after take-off in 2010.

The programme also has to contend with critics who say a country that struggles to feed its people adequately and where more than half have no toilets should not be splurging on space travel.

ISRO counters that its technology has helped economic development through satellites which monitor weather and water resources, or enable communication in remote areas.

The Bangalore-based organisation and its 16,000 staff also share their rocket technology with the state-run defence body responsible for India's missile programme.

The United States is the only nation that has successfully sent robotic explorers to land on Mars, the most recent being Curiosity which touched down in August 2012.

One of its discoveries appeared to undercut the purpose of the Indian mission to find evidence of methane, which would lend credence to the idea of Mars supporting a primitive form of life.

A study of data from Curiosity, published in September, found the rover had detected only trace elements of methane in the atmosphere.

"Remember that it (Curiosity's methane reading) is for a single spot. One point doesn't make it a story for the whole planet," top Indian space scientist Jitendra Nath Goswami told AFP.

NASA, which will launch its Maven probe on November 18 to study why Mars lost its atmosphere, is helping ISRO with communications.

Clouds of methane have previously been identified by telescopes on Mars, but the gas has never been confirmed by a mission there.

Methane on Earth is mostly produced by micro-organisms, so a positive reading would suggest some form of life on a planet that scientists believe was once covered with water.