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[NEW DELHI] India's space ambitions suffered a setback yesterday (10 July) when a rocket launch failed, destroying a two-tonne communications satellite.

Success would have also signalled an end to India's dependence on the European Ariane rocket to launch its INSAT satellites, and allowed India to press ahead with plans to launch 'low earth orbit' satellites for other countries on a commercial basis.

But a minute after the rocket launched from Sriharikota, an island 100 kilometres north of Chennai in the Bay of Bengal, scientists detected a malfunction in one of the four strap-on motors at its base that give an initial thrust as it lifts off.

The 49-metre rocket veered off course, became a ball of orange fire and billowing white smoke, and hurtled into the sea.

Later the Indian Space Research Organisation stated that: "the data received from the vehicle is being analysed to pinpoint the exact reasons [why it failed]".

The two-tonne communications satellite called INSAT-4C was equipped with transponders to expand 'direct to home' satellite broadcasting services in the country and to aid digital satellite newsgathering for television channels.

The country plans an unmanned moon mission by 2008 — a move questioned by some space scientists as being more than the country can afford (see Experts question India's moon exploration plans).

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