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India launches mission to Mars

India has launched its first spacecraft bound for Mars, a complex mission which it hopes will demonstrate and advance technologies for space travel.

Hundreds of people watched the rocket carrying the Mars spacecraft take off from the east-coast island of Shriharikota and streak across the sky. Many more across the country watched live TV broadcasts provided by the Indian Space and Research Organisation.

The 3,000lb (1,350kg) Mangalyaan orbiter will first head into an elliptical orbit around Earth, after which a series of technical manoeuvres and short burns will raise its orbit before it slingshots toward Mars.

Mangalyaan, which means "Mars craft" in Hindi, must travel 485 million miles (780 million km) over 300 days to reach an orbit around the red planet next September.

"The biggest challenge will be precisely navigating the space craft to Mars," said K Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian space agency. "We will know if we pass our examination on September 24 2014."

India is aiming to follow the Soviet Union, United States and Europe in having a successful visit to Mars.

"These missions are important. These are things that give Indians happiness and bragging rights," said Raghu Kalra, of the Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi. "Even a poor person, when he learns that my country is sending a mission to another planet, he will feel a sense of pride for his country, and he will want to make it a better place."

Some have questioned the 72 million US dollars (£45 million) price tag for a country of 1.2 billion people still dealing with widespread hunger and poverty. But India defended the Mars mission, and its 1 billion US dollars (£627 million ) space programme in general, by noting its importance in providing hi-tech jobs for scientists and engineers and practical applications in solving problems on Earth.

Decades of space research has allowed India to develop satellite, communications and remote sensing technologies that are helping to solve everyday problems at home, from forecasting where fish can be caught by fishermen to predicting cataclysmic storms and floods.

AP

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