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NASA backs commercial moonshots

NASA says it'll buy up to $30.1 million worth of data about robotic lander projects - basically doubling the potential impact of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

The space agency said its Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program would pay a minimum of $10,000 for each data contract relating to the design and demonstration of a lunar landing mission. "This includes data associated with hardware design, development and testing; ground operations and integration; launch; trajectory correction maneuvers; lunar braking, burn and landing; and enhanced capabilities," NASA said in today's news release.

Such data could help NASA design its own landers for robotic as well as human missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids or elsewhere. The program also provides an extra financial incentive for the 21 teams chasing the Google Lunar X Prize, which would richly reward the first team to land a privately developed rover on the moon. Ramin Khadem, chairman of Odyssey Moon Limited, told me last year that data purchases were part of the financial model for his venture's Lunar X Prize effort.

Today another front-running Lunar X Prize team, Astrobotic Technology, hailed NASA's data-purchase announcement. "NASA is turning to companies like Astrobotic and SpaceX to bring down the costs of space exploration," Astrobotic's president, David Gump, said in the news release. "Along with lower costs, the private sector can create innovative events and promotions that involve the public, which is one of the factors that the NASA data buy wants to measure."

NASA's purchases can be made through 2012, which is also the deadline for winning the Google Lunar X Prize program's maximum prize of $20 million. After that, the top prize shrinks to $15 million - and it goes away altogether if the money isn't won by the end of 2014. (Subsidiary prizes account for the competition's other $10 million.)

Are private-sector lunar missions the way to go? How about commercial lunar colonies? Let your imagination fly free and share your views in the comment section below.

Video: Astrobotic Technology

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