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Google is putting up $30 million to sponsor a new contest. To win the grand prize, you have to put a privately funded robotic rover on the moon. You can get bonus prizes if your rover discovers ice or takes photos of human artifacts like equipment left by Apollo astronauts.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Peter Diamandis runs something called the X PRIZE Foundation. It tries to spur the development of new technology by putting up big cash prizes.

A few years ago, it offered $10 million for the first privately funded space flight. SpaceShipOne, a white vehicle painted with blue stars, made two brief trips up and back - and won the prize.

PETER DIAMANDIS: And after that, we were looking to see where do we go next. And in the space realm, what was clear to us was, really were two objectives. One is an orbital X PRIZE and the second was a lunar X PRIZE.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Diamandis decided to first aim for the moon and he got Google to put up the money.

DIAMANDIS: To win the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a team has to build, design, launch and then soft-land on the moon a robotic rover, and then be able to rove - to maneuver around - for about a half a kilometer, 500 meters.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There are other requirements, too. Like, your rover has to do a mooncast, sending back images to Earth.

There's a $20 million grand prize. Second prize is worth $5 million, and there's $5 million in bonus prizes for things like getting your rover to survive a lunar night.

But if you want to go for it, you'd better act fast. Diamandis says it all has to happen before December 31st, 2014.

DIAMANDIS: I have very little doubt that it will happen. I think that we will have a winner within four years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Executives at Google seem to agree.

SERGEY BRIN: We're optimistic that we will have a lunar landing by the time this prize is done.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Goodgle co-founder Sergey Brin, speaking in a video prepared for the announcement today at Wired Magazine's NextFest held in Los Angeles.

The video shows him against a backdrop of the moon's dusty, gray surface. The blue Earth is just over his shoulder. He says Google has been impressed at how the X PRIZE Foundation has already been making things happen.

BRIN: So now, we are here today embarking upon this great adventure of having a commercial organization - nongovernmental - make an exploration to the moon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's been decades since Russia and the United States landed scientific probes on the moon's surface. Several countries are now interested in new missions to the moon.

For example, Japan is about to launch a moon orbiter and NASA plans to send an orbiting probe next year.

PETE WORDEN: But right now, there really isn't a lunar lander.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Pete Worden is head of the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He's been talking a lot with the X PRIZE folks about their robotic race to the moon.

WORDEN: So this could be kind of the first message from Earth in many decades that actually lands on the moon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Worden predicts a lot of interest from the private sector because if a company shows it can get a rover up there cheaply, NASA or other countries might suddenly become potential customers. And the winner would get bragging rights.

WORDEN: Just the excitement of having the private sector now for the first time touch another planet. That's a pretty neat concept and I think it's going to kick off a real excitement.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The X PRIZE Foundation says it will be opening up registration for teams immediately. They expect to get at least half a dozen entries in the next few months.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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