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Israeli Google Lunar XPrize team aims to put lander on the moon in 2017

The private space race is well and truly on, and SpaceIL, an Israeli team competing for the Google Lunar XPrize, just bought a ticket to the moon in early 2017.

The Google Lunar XPrize has its first official entrant in a contest designed to launch a new-age space race.

Israeli team SpaceIL announced Wednesday it has become the first to sign a formal contract with the contest, which challenges private teams to be the first to land a rover on the moon by the end of 2017. Launched in 2007, the Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP) includes a $20 million grand prize for the first privately funded team to land a craft on the moon and then cover 500 meters of the lunar surface while beaming high-definition footage back to Earth.

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SpaceIL

In addition to the $20 million grand prize, $5 million will go to the second team that achieves the same goal, with an additional $5 million available for any team that goes above and beyond, covering extra distance or surveying specific locations on the moon. The prize is funded by Google and organized by the XPrize Foundation, the organization behind the Ansari XPrize, which first brought commercial space flight into the eyes of many.

There are a number of international teams all competing for that money, all with one thing in common: they're independent. Governments can provide a small amount of funding and support to these teams, but the bulk of their money must be raised through other means. CNET profiled many of the front-running teams in a series of videos last year.

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SpaceIL, an Israel-based team with nearly 20 full-time employees and some 250 volunteers, is developing a spacecraft it hopes will cover the required 500 meters not by roving across the surface, but by hopping. The craft will blast off from Earth on a SpaceX rocket sometime in the second half of 2017 and then, hopefully, make a soft landing on the lunar surface. From there it will take off again, covering the required distance in one hop and, if all goes well, winning the race.

SpaceIL has plenty of competition. Two other GLXP teams, US-based Astrobotic and Japan-based Hakuto announced earlier this year that they, too, had signed on for a ride on a SpaceX rocket, with an anticipated launch in late 2016. Additionally, another American team, Moon Express, recently announced that it too has signed multiple launch contracts for 2017, so it's still anybody's game.

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The SpaceIL lander. SpaceIL

The remaining teams in the GLXP have until the end of 2016 to announce a formal launch contract to get their spacecraft into orbit and until the end of 2017 to actually get to the moon. Place your bets, folks, because this should be interesting.