India is set for the next phase in a nascent Asian space race, with a 5 November launch for Mars.

The payload – a small orbiter carrying a methane sensor, thermal infrared imaging spectrometer, Lyman Alpha Photometer, quadruple mass spectrometer and a tri-colour camera to image the surface – will follow an elliptical, rather than the circular orbit characteristic of other Mars orbiters.

The launch is a result of India’s decision to fly with a variant of its proven Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-XL, instead of the more powerful but so-far less reliable Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle. The PSLV family had completed 23 successful flights as of July 2013.

The mission timetable so far is reminiscent of the USA’s fast-track push to the Moon in the 1960s. New Delhi only announced its ambitious Mars plan as recently as August 2013.

China, meanwhile, launched its fifth manned mission to low-Earth orbit in June 2013 – a three-person, 15-day rendezvous with its Tiangong 1 space station. The nation also launched lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010 – one of which also managed an asteroid fly-by. In December 2013 China hopes to make the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976, with its third lunar mission, Chang’e 3.

With Mars, China has been less fortunate. It lost its small Yinghuo 1 orbiter when Russia’s Phobos-Grunt launch failed in late 2011.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has successfully sent a probe, Chandrayaan-1, to orbit the Moon. A sample return mission plan has been delayed, but a launch is now planned for 2016.

The Mars orbiter mission, known as Mangalyaan, has cost ISRO the remarkably small sum of $75 million to get to the launch pad. India may, however, be paying dearly in its bid to pace China in deep space.

The country’s space programme has brought home communications and resource management benefits, but New Delhi has taken fire for adding a manned and interplanetary programme while people on the ground go hungry. International aid donors, including the UK, have responded by cutting financial support.

For its Mars orbiter mission, ISRO is getting help from the deep space communication network based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The 5 November launch will fly from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota on India’s eastern seaboard.