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India launches spacecraft to study solar winds on heels of successful moon landing

Following quickly on the success of India's moon landing, the country's space agency launched a rocket on Saturday to study the sun in its first solar mission.

Aditya-L1 on 4-month mission to observe sun's outermost layers

A person holding a red, orange and yellow umbrella stands in the lower part of the photograph frame with several people behind him as a rocket lifts off in the background.

Following quickly on the success of India's moon landing, the country's space agency launched a rocket on Saturday to study the sun in its first solar mission.

The rocket left a trail of smoke and fire as scientists clapped, a live broadcast on the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) website showed.

The broadcast was watched by more than 860,000 viewers, while thousands gathered at a viewing gallery near the launch site to see the liftoff of the probe, which will aim to study solar winds, which can cause disturbance on Earth commonly seen as auroras.

Named after the Hindi word for the sun, the Aditya-L1 spacecraft took flight barely a week after India beat Russia to become the first country to land on the south pole of the moon. While Russia had a more powerful rocket, India's Chandrayaan-3 out-endured the Luna-25 to execute a textbook landing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing for India's space missions to play a larger role on a world stage dominated by the United States and China. "He wants to recreate India's IT boom with space," said a government official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for Modi's office.

"We have made sure we will have a unique data set that is not currently available from any other mission," said Sankar Subramanian, principal scientist of the mission.

"This will allow us to understand the sun, its dynamics, as well as the inner heliosphere, which is an important element for current-day technology, as well as space-weather aspects," he added.

WATCH | India's successful moon mission expected to boost its private space sector:

A 'big bang' for science

The Aditya-L1 is designed to travel 1.5 million kilometres over four months, far short of the sun, which is 150 million kilometres from Earth. It is meant to stop its journey in a kind of parking lot in space, called a Lagrange Point, where objects tend to stay put because of balancing gravitational forces, reducing fuel consumption for the spacecraft.

The mission has the capacity to make a "big bang in terms of science," said Somak Raychaudhury, who was involved in developing some components of the observatory, adding that energy particles emitted by the sun can hit satellites that control communications on Earth.

Rows of seated children smile and cheer.

"There have been episodes when major communications have gone down because a satellite has been hit by a big corona emission. Satellites in low Earth orbit are the main focus of global private players, which makes the Aditya-L1 mission a very important project," he said.

Scientists hope to learn more about the effect of solar radiation on the thousands of satellites in orbit, a number growing with the success of ventures like the Starlink communications network of Elon Musk's SpaceX.

"The low Earth orbit has been heavily polluted due to private participation, so understanding how to safeguard satellites there will have special importance in today's space environment," said Rama Rao Nidamanuri, head of the department of Earth and space sciences at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology.

Longer term, data from the mission could help better understand the sun's impact on Earth's climate patterns and the origins of solar wind, the stream of particles that flow from the sun through the solar system, ISRO scientists have said.

Pushed by Modi, India has privatized space launches and is looking to open the sector to foreign investment as it targets a five-fold increase in its share of the global launch market within the next decade.

As space turns into a global business, the country is also banking on the success of ISRO to showcase its prowess in the sector.

WATCH | India makes history as first country to land spacecraft near moon's south pole:

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