Google sponsors $30M contest to land private rover on moon

LOS ANGELES - Google Inc. is bankrolling a $30 million spaceflight 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 Internet search leader said Thursday.

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 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 that 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 an existing 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.

Details of the Google X Prize are to be revealed at the WIRED NextFest technology show in Los Angeles.