India’s first interplanetary mission began its 299-day journey to Mars at 09:08 GMT this morning with the 25th successful launch of the country’s PSLV rocket, from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota on the east coast.

The Mangalyaan Mars orbiter is expected to reach the Red Planet about 21 September 2014, where it will conduct atmospheric research with a special emphasis on examining whether methane exists in the Martian atmosphere in significant quantities, which might be indicative that life was once present on the planet.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s mission plan depends on building momentum in a series of ever-higher elliptical orbits around Earth before a final rocket burn pushes the spacecraft towards Mars. In Mangalyaan’s case, this Hohmann transfer orbit technique began with a 247 x 23,566km Earth orbit that will be raised in six firings to 600 x 215,000km before the final burn to Mars.

While a successful Mars mission would be a welcome lift for any space agency, ISRO will be especially anxious about Mangalyaan. The Indian space programme has been beset with criticism, both over its spending on glamorous flights, including the successful Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, rather than more mundane missions that would benefit the hundreds of millions of often desperately poor people on the ground, and over its poor success rate.

While the PSLV rocket has now achieved 23 successful launches, one partial success and one failure, the larger GSLV – Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle – has failed five times in seven flights.

And, India’s space efforts have also paled in comparison to an increasingly ambitious Chinese programme, including a series of manned flights to a small space station, Tiangong 1. China 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.

What China has not achieved, however, is a mission to Mars – where India, clearly, has a chance to lay claim to a first triumph in this Asian space race.

China’s own Mars plan, to orbit a satellite called Yinghuo 1, ended in the Pacific Ocean along with its ride, Russia’s late 2011 Phobos-Grunt sample return mission fiasco.