LOS ANGELES - Google Inc. is bankrolling a $30 million space flight contest for private companies to safely land a robotic rover on the moon and beam back a gigabyte of images and video to Earth.
The grand prize could be worth up to $25 million.
If the competition produces a winner, it would prove a major boon to the emerging private spaceflight industry and mark the first time that a nongovernment entity has flown a lunar space probe.
Google, the leader in Internet search, has partnered with 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 race to the moon won't be easy or cheap. Teams have to raise money to build a roaming spacecraft that will be tough enough to survive a landing and have the smarts to complete a set of tasks. Each rover must also be equipped with high-definition video and still cameras to document the journey.
The rules call for a spacecraft to trek at least 1,312 feet across the lunar surface and return a package of data including self-portraits, panoramic views, and near-real time videos. Participants are also responsible for securing a launch vehicle for the probe, either by building it themselves or contracting with a rocket company.
Whoever accomplishes the feat by the end of 2012 will receive $20 million. 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.
The competition comes at a time of revived interest in lunar exploration among foreign governments since the Cold War space race. Governments including the United States and those in 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 today. 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.