In a bid to stimulate research into low-cost robotic exploration of space, Google is offering a $30 million prize fund to reward the first private company that can safely land a robotic rover on the moon. The challenge is the latest initiative from the X Prize Foundation, which in 2004 hosted the $10 million Ansari X Prize contest that led to the first manned private spaceflight.

"We are confident that teams from around the world will help develop new robotic and virtual presence technology, which will dramatically reduce the cost of space exploration," said Dr Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation in a statement.
The top prize of $20 million will be on offer until 2012 and will be given to the private firm that soft lands a rover on the Moon and completes a series of tasks which include gathering a specific set of images, video and data. There is also a $5 million second-place prize and a $5 million bonus to teams that go beyond the minimum requirements.

This is not the first time Google ventures into space albeit via the Internet by launching Google Mars, which allows users to explore the surface of the Red Planet, and the most recent Google Sky, giving users of Google Earth the chance to glide through images of more than one million stars and 200 million galaxies.