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India's first moon mission to take off next April

MUMBAI (Reuters) - India will launch a locally built rocket on the country’s first unmanned mission to the moon next April, the head of the project said on Friday.

“We have decided on April 9, but if there’s any problem then we have launch windows in the following couple of days,” M. Annadurai told Reuters.

Despite limited funding, India operates an extensive space programme consisting of launch vehicles, satellites and data-processing centres.

The state-run Indian Space Research Organisation launched four satellites on a single rocket for the first time in January, including one that was brought back to earth to set the stage for the country to send an astronaut into space by 2014 and a manned mission to the moon by 2020.

India’s space programme was launched as a scientific research effort after the country gained independence from British colonial rule but it has now begun to make money from commercial launches.

Sixteen Indian satellites currently orbit the earth, supporting telecommunications, TV broadcasting, earth observation, weather forecasting, remote education and healthcare.

India’s constellation of seven earth-observation satellites is the largest of its kind in the world.

But its space programme lags behind its Asian rival, China, which became only the third nation -- after the United States and the former Soviet Union -- to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket in 2003.

Beijing plans a space walk by 2008.