An Indian rocket has blasted off on the country?s first mission to Mars as it aims to become the only Asian nation to reach the Red Planet.

The rocket carrying the unmanned probe took off at 9.08am GMT from the Sriharikota spaceport, close to Chennai.

It entered orbit around Earth 44 minutes later, the country?s space agency confirmed.

The gold-coloured probe, which weighs 1,350kg (2,976lb), is about the size of a small car and is being carried by a 350-tonne rocket ? much smaller than the US or Russian equivalents.

Lacking the power to fly directly, it will orbit Earth for nearly a month, building up enough velocity to break free from its gravitational pull.

Only then will it begin the second stage of its nine-month journey which will test India?s scientists to the full.

The gold-coloured probe is about the size of a small car

The gold-coloured probe is about the size of a small car

The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as Mangalyaan, was announced 15 months ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, shortly after a Chinese probe flopped when it failed to leave Earth?s atmosphere.

It led to speculation that India was seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbour, despite denials from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

?We are in competition with ourselves in the areas that we have charted for ourselves,? ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan said last week.

?Each country has its own priorities.?

The project comes in at just 4.5bn rupees (?45.5m), but India has been criticised over the cost because the country still has millions of people living in poverty and many children do not have proper access to education.

UK financial aid to India, worth about ?200m, is currently being phased out and will end by 2015.

India has said developing space technology can still help its development, such as through satellites which monitor weather or enable communication in remote areas.

Reaching the Red Planet is considered a difficult mission as Mars? orbit means its distance from Earth varies between 31 and 249 million miles.

More than half of all projects have failed, including China?s in 2011 and Japan?s in 2003.

Only the US, Russia and the European Union have successfully reached the planet.

Nasa, which launches its own $455m (?283m) Maven probe to Mars on November 18, is helping India with communications.

Two ships stationed in the Pacific will also assist with monitoring.

India hopes to find evidence of methane when it reaches the planet.

The existence of the gas would lend weight to the idea of Mars being able to support life, as methane on Earth is mostly produced by micro-organisms.

India has had some success with space missions in recent years and sent its Chandrayaan probe to the Moon in November 2008.

However, it lost contact with the probe the following year.


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