India launched its first mission to Mars today at 15:08 local time from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the country's east coast in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the mission, dubbed Mangalyaan (Mars craft), is expected to "focus on life, climate, geology, origin, evolution and sustainability of life on the planet", according to the ISRO. In doing so, Mangalyaan will attempt to shed light on one big unanswered question about Mars: whether the planet has a biosphere or even an environment in which life could have evolved.

The probe, which was launched on a polar-satellite launch vehicle, is expected to arrive at the red planet in September 2014 after a 300-day trip. Costing $100m, the 1350 kg craft will then be placed in a highly elliptical orbit in the Martian atmosphere when it arrives, being 500 km from the red planet at its closest approach and 80,000 km away at its most distant. The mission will carry five scientific payloads. Among them are a multi-spectral camera and spectrometers, as well as a highly sensitive methane sensor to assess if the gas is of "biological or geological origin".

Mangalyaan, which was approved for launch only a year ago, follows hot on the heels of India's successful maiden mission to the Moon – Chandrayaan-1 – that found evidence of water on the lunar surface in 2009. "This is our modest beginning for our interplanetary mission," says ISRO spokesperson Deviprasad Karnik.

Asian space race

Reaching Mars is not easy – about 50% of missions do not succeed. But if the satellite successfully reaches Mars, India will become the fourth power – after the US, Russia and Europe – to launch a probe to the red planet. Indeed, India will also become the first country from Asia to reach Mars after China's maiden mission to the red planet – Yinghuo-1 – crashed shortly after take-off when it was launched together with the Russian satellite Phobos-Grunt in November 2011. Although China and Japan have beaten India in other aspects of space development, including manned and Moon missions, Mars is seen as an area where India could now take the lead in the Asian space race.