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[NEW DELHI] India's scientific community has given a mixed response to the announcement that the country is to send a spacecraft to the moon.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee gave his go ahead to the mission — which would involve putting a satellite into the moon's orbit by 2008 — in his Independence Day address on 15 August.

But some scientists are saying that the US$100-million state-funded project should not be a priority for India. For example, D. Raghuraman, an executive committee member of the Delhi Science Forum — a public interest organisation engaged in science policy — calls it "a luxury India can hardly afford".

Others argue that lunar exploration should be an international enterprise. Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist and director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, feels that India should focus on the exploration of "our own planet — air, land and sea — which] is something that can be of profound importance to the people of our country".

But the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which had been awaiting formal sanction of the lunar project for more than eight months, claims it has the overwhelming support of the scientific community.

Jayant Narlikar, India's leading astronomer says it offers "an intellectual challenge", and that spin-off technologies could benefit society at large. And ISRO chairman Krishnaswami Kasturirangan argues that the venture opens "a new dimension to international cooperation".

The mission, known as 'Chandrayan-1' will involve placing a satellite in orbit 100 kilometres above the moon. The satellite would map the moon's surface with 5-metre resolution for the first time ever. It would also produce a chemical map of the entire moon surface as well as a three-dimensional atlas of regions of scientific interest.

"This mission will provide a unique opportunity for frontier scientific research," ISRO says in a statement. "It is expected to be the forerunner of more ambitious planetary missions in the years to come, including landing robots on the moon and visits by Indian spacecraft to other planets in the solar system."

But Santhosh K. Seelan, a former ISRO scientist and currently with School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, United States, is more cautious about the mission's benefits. "[I hope] ISRO does not lose track of its commitment for India's development in its quest for glory and pride," he says.

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