India called off the launch of its much-awaited second lunar mission shortly before liftoff Monday, citing a technical snag, in a setback for the country's growing ambitions in space.
The countdown clock for the Chandrayaan-2 mission - which had been due to blast off from the country's east coast at 2:51 am - was halted with 56 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.
The Indian Space Research Organization, which had planned to live-stream the event for online viewers, said in a tweet that a problem had been detected in the launch vehicle system and that officials had postponed the mission "as a measure of abundant precaution." A new date is expected to be announced soon.
The abortive launch represents a blow to India's quest to build its capabilities in space. With Chandrayaan-2, India was hoping to become the fourth nation after the United States, Russia and China to soft-land on the Moon's surface.
India's past successes in space have come from low-cost, homegrown technology that has helped to achieve breakthroughs such as the discovery of water on the surface of the Moon. The space program, a source of national pride, has allowed the country to develop more accurate weather forecasting and improve navigation systems for its missiles. Many Indians replied to the agency's tweet Monday with messages of support.
President Ram Nath Kovind was at the Satish Dhawan Space Center, north of the city of Chennai, for the planned launch.
Pallava Bagla, science editor of news channel NDTV, reporting from the site, said the fault appeared to be in the cryogenic engine stage - the final stage of the space launch vehicle.
Up to that point, the space agency's last update had been about completing the filling of liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Bagla said a second attempt could take place this month.
"Even if it were to get postponed by a year, it wouldn't make much difference," he said, adding that no other mission would be able to reach the targeted lunar region before then. "It is rocket science, after all."
The space agency didn't respond to requests for comment. K. Sivan, its chief, had earlier indicated the mission would have been India's most complex to date.
Made up of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, Chandrayaan-2 was to be launched by the country's most powerful rocket, known as Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III. At a height of 144 feet (44 metres), it weighs over 640 tons (58 tonnes), about 1.5 times that of a fully loaded Boeing 747 jet.
A former official of India's defense research organization, Ravi Gupta, told local news agency ANI that the countdown was stopped at the "right time" before any big problem occurred.
Chaitanya Giri, a fellow of the space and ocean studies program at the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, had called Chandrayaan-2 a "pioneering mission for human habitation beyond Earth." If successful, he said, India would become the first country to land on the lunar south pole.
The mission, costing US$141 million, is far below NASA's spending of US$25 billion on its Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s. India increased its space budget this year to US$1.8 billion, but that remains a fraction of what the United States spends.
"It is said that sky is the limit. It was apt earlier, but now India is taking a leap forward to reach space," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the Group of 20 summit in Japan last month.
In March, following a flare-up in tensions with archrival Pakistan, Modi announced that India had joined the United States, China and Russia in mastering the ability to shoot down a low-orbit satellite with a missile.
Last year, the prime minister pledged that by 2022, India will send a manned mission into space. Rakesh Sharma, the only Indian to have been to space, was part of a Russian mission in 1984.
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