India, Japan and China see their space programmes as an important symbol of their international stature and economic development as they venture into carving a larger slice of the lucrative commercial satellite launch market.

The Chandrayaan-1 is being sent on a two-year orbital mission to provide a detailed map of the mineral, chemical and topographical characteristics of the moon's surface.

"It's a landmark mission ... establishing India's credentials as a leader in space technology," said K. Kasturirangan, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation.

"This effort and similar efforts in the coming years will put India in a unique position to be an active partner in major global efforts involving planetary exploration and exploitation," Kasturirangan said.

Satellite club

India first staked its case for a share of the commercial launch market by sending an Italian satellite into orbit in April last year. In January, it launched an Israeli spy satellite in the face of Iranian protests.

The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft [AFP]
 
But it still has a long way to go to catch up with China which, together with the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency, is already well established in the commercial launch sector.

Chinese officials have spoken of a manned mission to the moon in the future, after following the United States and the former Soviet Union last month by carrying out a space walk.

A more immediate goal is the establishment of an orbiting space lab, with Beijing's long-term ambition to develop a rival to the International Space Station, a joint project involving the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and a clutch of European countries.

Japan has also been boosting its space programme and has set a goal of sending an astronaut to the moon by 2020.

Japan's first lunar probe, Kaguya, was successfully launched in September last year, releasing two baby satellites which will be used to study the gravity fields of the moon among other projects.

As well as the commercial ramifications, the development of a space race in Asia has a number of security implications, with the potential for developing military applications such as intelligence gathering and space-based weapons.

Conflict in cosmos

Earlier this year, Japan scrapped a decades-old ban on the military use of space, hoping to remove any legal obstacles to building more advanced spy satellites.

South Korea, a late starter in the space race, has launched three commercial satellites since 1995 and launched its first military communications satellite in 2006.

India started its space programme in 1963, developing its own satellites and launch vehicles to reduce dependence on overseas agencies.

Chandrayaan-1, with a launch weight of about 1.3 tonnes, is shaped like a cuboid or rectangular prism and carries 11 payloads - five from India and others from abroad.

Officials at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, 80km north of Chennai, were optimistic that there would be no delays in Wednesday's launch.