Google Inc. is bankrolling a $30 million contest that could significantly boost the commercial space industry and spur the first non-governmental flight to the moon.
The bulk of the prize will go to the first private company that can land a robotic rover on the moon and beam back a gigabyte of images and video to Earth, the Internet search leader said Thursday.
Google partnered with the X Prize Foundation for the moon challenge, which is open to companies around the world.
The Santa Monica-based nonprofit prize institute is best known for hosting the Ansari X Prize contest, which led to the first manned private
spaceflight in 2004.
The Google Lunar X Prize joins another prize already dangling in front of potential competitors: $50 million that hotel magnate Robert Bigelow is offering the first private American team to rocket a manned craft into orbit by 2010.
The race to the moon won't be easy or cheap.
But whoever fills the requirements in the Google contest by the end of 2012 gets $20 million.
The winning spacecraft must be tough enough to survive a landing
and be equipped with high-definition video and still cameras.
And it must be smart enough to trek at least 1,312 feet on the moon and
send self-portraits, panoramic views and near-real-time videos back
to Earth that will be streamed on Google's Web site.
"I hope that a very ambitious team of people will allow us all to virtually go back to the moon very soon. I couldn't be more excited about that," Google co-founder Larry Page said at Wired magazine's technology show in Los Angeles.
Participants must secure a launch vehicle for the probe, either by building it themselves or contracting with an existing private rocket company.
Private rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said it will subsidize use of its launch vehicle to interested competitors.
The company, headed by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, has not had a fully successful launch in two tries.
If there is no winner, the purse will drop to $15 million until the end of 2014, when the contest expires.
There is also a $5 million second-place prize and $5 million in bonus money to teams that go beyond the minimum requirements.
At least one group has expressed interest.
Famed roboticist William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University said he is putting together a team to build a lunar rover.
Last year, Whittaker was in charge of two autonomous vehicles that competed in a robot race across the Mojave Desert.
The competition comes at a time of revived interest in lunar exploration among foreign governments since the Cold War space race.
Government agencies in the United States, Europe and Asia are gearing up to return to the moon.
Japan's space agency, JAXA, plans to launch its long-delayed orbiter SELENE from a remote Pacific Island on Friday.
NASA next year will rocket a lunar orbiter and impactor, the first of several lunar robotic projects before astronauts are sent to the moon next decade.
Government lunar missions can cost upward of hundreds of millions of dollars, but the X Prize Foundation and Google hope the private sector can do it for considerably less.
Space technology experts say a moon landing is achievable, but teams will face financial and regulatory hurdles.
Chief among them is planning a mission that will be cheap enough to make the prize worthwhile.
"There's no reason why the private sector cannot band together and execute a lunar mission," said Paul Spudis, a lunar expert at Johns Hopkins University, who is building imaging radar for two upcoming government moon launches.
The partnership between Google and the X Prize Foundation comes as no surprise.
Earlier this year, Page hosted a star-studded charity auction for the foundation at the company's Mountain View headquarters.
Page is a trustee of the X Prize Foundation.
The Google Lunar X Prize announcement, also a flashy event, was attended by Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin and featured a video message by film director James Cameron.
Google has had previous forays into space albeit via the Internet by launching Google Mars and Google Earth, Web browser-based mapping tools that give users an up-close, interactive view with the click of a mouse.
The X Prize Foundation is also holding competitions in rapid genetic decoding and creating super-efficient vehicles.
But the moon prize is by far the largest in its 12-year history.