India is on its way to the moon, the country’s first unmanned mission there ahead of a planned 2012 rover landing.

The Chandrayaan 1 probe blasted off atop a PSLV-C11 rocket at 6:22 local time this morning from Satish Dhawan Space Center in the southern Andrha Pradesh Province. The $79-million mission reflects an emerging, competitive Asian presence in space at a time when the U.S. shuttle fleet is nearing retirement.

“It is a historic moment,” said G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, according to Bloomberg News. “Our journey to the moon has started.”

Chandrayaan 1, which means “moon craft 1,” will spend two years in lunar orbit, analyzing moon dust and looking for chemicals including helium 3, which is used in nuclear fusion, according to Reuters. It’s carrying 11 payloads, including a moon impact probe that will demonstrate the technology needed to land the rover.

The mission also could boost India’s competitiveness with China, which sent an unmanned rocket into lunar orbit last year and conducted its first spacewalk three weeks ago. Like India, China plans to land an unmanned rover on the moon in 2012 that will study soil and rock.

“China has gone earlier, but today we are trying to catch them, catch that gap, bridge the gap,” said Bhaskar Narayan, a director at the Indian space agency, according to Reuters.

The U.S. will retire its shuttle in 2010, and it will be at least 2015 before its new Orion spacecraft is ready for the cosmos. It plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020—the same year the Chinese expect to arrive.

(Photo mosaic of the near side of the moon/NSSDC Photo Gallery)