The spacecraft is called Chandrayaan-1, which roughly translates from Sanskrit as "moon vehicle," and it represents India's attempt to stake its place in an emerging Asian space race. Until now, only the United States, Russia, the European space agency, and, most recently, Japan and China, had launched lunar missions. Japan launched its Kaguya spacecraft in October 2007, and China sent up the Chang'e-1 lunar orbiter one month after that.
"[The launch] is proof of India's technical capability in an advanced area of science," Dipankar Banerjee, a retired army general and director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, told the New York Times. "India wants to be counted as one of the emerging players in Asia. Space is, of course, an important part of power projection."
According to Reuters, the launch was trumpeted proudly in the Indian media. India's national television channels broadcast the launch live, with words like "Destination Moon ... Historic Day for India."
The orbiter launched at 6:20 a.m. local time from the Sriharikota space center on an island off the coast of southern India.
The $79 million mission will offer a previously unknown level of detail about the moon's surface, former NASA associate administrator Scott Pace told the Associated Press. The most comprehensive maps of the moon to date were made during the Apollo missions 40 years ago, he said.
"We don't really have really good modern maps of the moon with modern instrument," Pace told AP. "The quality of the Martian maps, I would make a general argument, is superior to what we have of the moon."
Of the 11 instruments on board Chandrayaan-1, two are joint projects with NASA. The Moon Minerology Mapper, or M3, will investigate the mineral composition of the moon's surface; another, the Mini-SAR, will search for ice at the moon's poles. Three other instruments on board are from the European Space Agency, and one is from Bulgaria.
Most of the instruments will make their assessments from space, but the orbiter will also send down a small probe called the Moon Impactor Probe to analyze the moon's surface.
The Indian Space Agency also said that the mission will test systems for a future moon landing, according to the AP. India plans to land a rover on the moon in 2011, and aims to eventually launch a manned mission.