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Google Lunar X Prize's race to the moon has begun

A collaboration of space industry veterans called Odyssey Moon becomes the first group to complete official registration for the $30 million prize.

Step aside, NASA. The race between private sector teams to capture the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize is under way.

The teams, some of which have divulged details about their plans this week, are required to land a privately-funded robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface, explore the nearby area, and transmit results of the exploration back to Earth. The grand prize is $20 million, with a second prize of $5 million and bonuses of $5 million.

One announcement came on Thursday from a group called Odyssey Moon, which said at an event in San Jose, Calif., that it was the first to complete official registration.

"We believe in competition and we believe in this prize. Future generations will view the Google Lunar X Prize as the turning point of the 21st century, when humanity realized the moon's critical role for prosperity and survival in space and on Earth," said Robert Richards, Odyssey Moon's founder. Richards has a long history of private sector space efforts, including founding the International Space University and running Optech's space division.

Odyssey Moon was in something of a stealth mode until Thursday morning. It turns out to be a company headquartered on Britain's Isle of Man with plans to contract out development work to Canada's MDA Corporation. Other space industry veterans who are involved include Ramin Khadem, the former chief financial officer of Inmarsat, and Christopher Scott, former director of Lockheed Martin's space operations commercialization division.

According to a recent post from the X Prize Foundation, about 350 potential teams have asked for the guidelines and registration forms. About 34 percent of those people identified themselves as being from the United States.

Another expected official entrant will be a team from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, who already have a Web site up at lunarrover.org. It notes that moon rovers face a more extreme environment than Mars: "Noontime temperatures are hotter than boiling water. Night is colder than liquid nitrogen, and lasts for two solid weeks. Robots risk freezing, frying, radiation, and lunar dust, which has microscopic jagged edges leading to rapid clogging of joints and seals."

The so-called CMU Moon Prize team includes the university's chief roboticist, William "Red" Whittaker, who has with his colleagues formed a privately-held company called Astrobotic Technology to enter the competition. Astrobotic announced on Wednesday that it chose Raytheon for its development of "a next generation of high-precision, propellant-efficient lunar landing technologies." (Here's an interview with Whittaker on the topic.)

And MSNBC.com reported this week that Allen Newcomb of Team BonNova is planning to pursue the Google Lunar X Prize "with a vehicle based on our Lunar Lander Challenge vehicle, the Lauryad."

Newcomb, who designed the avionics and flight software for the hybrid rocket engine used in Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, was referring to the vehicle entered in a Northrop Grumman competition.

[Disclosure: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee.]