By Satarupa Bhattacharjya
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India plans to send a satellite via an unmanned spacecraft to orbit Mars next year, joining a small group of nations already exploring the red planet, a government scientist said on Friday.
A rocket will blast off from the southeastern coast of India, dropping the satellite into deep space, which will then travel onto Mars to achieve orbit, the senior scientist said, asking not to be named because the project is awaiting final approval.
A spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) based in the southern city of Bangalore would not confirm the mission, but commented generally on the ambitions of India's space program.
"After the Moon, worldwide attention is now focused on finding out if there (are) habitable spots on Mars," ISRO's Deviprasad Karnik said.
ISRO scientists expect the satellite to orbit at less than 100 km (62 miles) above Mars.
India's federal cabinet is expected soon to clear the mission, according to media reports this week that said the program will cost about $80 million.
The plan has drawn criticism in a country suffering from high levels of malnutrition and power shortages. But India has long argued that technology developed in its space program has practical applications to everyday life.
India's space exploration program began in 1962. Four years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon. India is now looking at landing a wheeled rover on the Moon in 2014.
Separately, the United States expects to land NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory vehicle at 1:31 a.m. EDT on Monday (0031 EDT) next to a mountain that may harbor life-friendly environments.
Last year, a Chinese Russian probe failed in a bid to send a satellite to Mars.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Ed Lane)