India is to launch its first mission to Mars later as it bids to become the only Asian nation to reach the Red Planet.

The rocket carrying the unmanned probe is expected to take off at 9.08am GMT from the Sriharikota spaceport off the southeast coast.

“The countdown is progressing well, as scheduled,” said Deviprasad Karnik, spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

“The weather is normal. Slightly cloudy but no problem.”

The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as Mangalyaan, was announced 15 months ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, shortly after a Chinese probe flopped when it failed to leave Earth’s atmosphere.

The timing led to speculation that India was seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbour, despite denials from ISRO.

“We are in competition with ourselves in the areas that we have charted for ourselves,” ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan said last week.

“Each country has its own priorities.”

The probe is about the size of a small car and will be carried by a rocket much smaller than American or Russian equivalents.

It will orbit Earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from its gravitational pull.

Only then will it begin the second stage of its nine month journey which will test India’s scientists to the full.

More than half of all Mars projects have failed, including China’s in 2011 and Japan’s in 2003. Only the US, Russia and the European Union have successfully reached there.

The total cost of the project is just 4.5bn rupees (£45.5m).

Nasa, which will launch its own probe to study Mars on November 18, is helping ISRO with communications. Two ships stationed in the Pacific will also assist with monitoring.

source: skynews