NEW DELHI - 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.

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