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Blinged-out gold sat to show China how it's Yinghuo-done

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Indian space-wallahs are celebrating the successful launch of an unmanned mission to Mars.

A rocket carrying the Mars probe blasted off from Sriharikota spaceport on the south east coast of India at about 9.08 GMT, about 90 minutes ago at the time of publication. So far, the only crash in the mission was at the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) website, which was meant to be showing live footage but crumbled under the weight of visitor numbers.

The Rs 450 crore (£45m, $74m) Mars Orbiter Mission, which is known as Mangalyaan, throws down a gauntlet to China, which is India's rival in a closely fought Asian space race.

China's Mars hopes were crushed in 2011, when its Yinghuo-1 satellite was stalled along with the Russian space probe, Phobos-Grunt, to which it was attached. China's taikonuats are still planning a 2017 manned Moon mission and continue to plan Mars missions, and are so confident about their eventual Mars success that they're looking into ways to plant astro-farms to feed themselves once they get there.

But India has denied the mission is designed to get one over China.

"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."

However, that's not how the rest of India sees it.

"In the last century the space race meant the US against the Soviets. In the 21st century it means India against China," said Pallava Bagla, an Indian science journalist. "There is a lot of national pride involved in this."

The mission is expected to take nine months to reach Mars. The gold-coloured robotic satellite, which is about the size of small car at a weight of 1,350kg, will first orbit the earth for a month to build up momentum.

Once it is travelling quickly enough, the probe will shoot off to Mars and settle into orbit, hopefully beaming back data to India.

NASA is helping with the Mangalyaan mission and will help ISRO with communications. The American space agency will launch its own Mars mission later this month.

In space terms, the mission is fairly cheap. Nonetheless, some observers are surprised that a country with such visible problems with poverty would spend its dosh on sending a probe to Mars. ®

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