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One moonshot team buys up another

Moon Express

An artist's conception shows Moon Express' lunar lander.

One of the competitors in the race to send the first private-sector probe to the moon says it's acquired the assets of a rival team, marking what could be considered a "Netscape moment" for the commercial moonshot industry.

Moon Express said the acquisition of Colorado-based Next Giant Leap will add to its momentum in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, which promises a huge payoff to the first team that sends a rover to the moon for an exploratory trek that includes transmitting high-definition imagery back to Earth. Moon Express and Next Giant Leap are among 26 teams vying for the prize.

"There are many synergies between our companies," Bob Richards, Moon Express' co-founder and CEO, said in today's announcement, which was issued during a Google Lunar X Prize team summit in Washington. "We are all stronger together, and we look forward to carrying on the innovation and vision of the Next Giant Leap founders and partners."

Both ventures were selected by NASA in 2010 for data-sharing contracts that are worth up to $10 million each. Both companies have been working on rovers that would hop across the lunar surface. The Next Giant Leap effort produced a "hopper" design that attracted a $1 million commitment from the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory to fund the development of a guidance, navigation and control system testbed.

Richards told me that the relationship with Draper Lab on the control system "is perhaps the most obvious and strongest inheritance of the acquisition we will be actively working," but he also placed great value on the other partnerships that Next Giant Leap had forged over the past few years. Among those partners are Sierra Nevada Corp., MIT Space Systems Laboratory, Aurora Flight Services, Jolted Media Group, the Center for Space Entrepreneurship and the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. 

Richards said that the acquisition involved a payment to Next Giant Leap, but by mutual agreement, the amount would not be disclosed. Moon Express probably ranks among the more financially solid ventures chasing the Google Lunar X Prize, considering that one of the venture's co-founders is dot-com billionaire Naveen Jain

Next Giant Leap

An artist's conception shows Next Giant Leap's proposed lunar lander. Moon Express' Bob Richards said that his venture "will subsume Next Giant Leap designs to the extent possible and practical. ... The main hardware difference is that the Moon Express lander uses the NASA Common Spacecraft Bus heritage and the Next Giant Leap lander was based on the SNC Orbcomm bus."

Michael Joyce, founder and president of Next Giant Leap, said the acquisition serves as validation of his team's value, and as a testament to the dedication of his partners. "Next Giant Leap and its partners have made remarkable technical progress," he said in today's announcement. "We are proud to be able to offer that value in support of the vision and resources of Moon Express that continue our dreams toward the moon."

Richards said Joyce and another Next Giant Leap co-founder, Todd Mosher, have been invited to serve as advisers to Moon Express.

The Google Lunar X Prize is offering $20 million to the first team that lands a rover on the moon, sends it on an excursion of at least 500 meters and gets it to send high-definition images and video back to Earth. If a second team pulls off the same feat, that team would receive $5 million. Another $5 million is reserved for bonus prizes. The prizes expire if no team fulfills the requirements by the end of 2015, and if a government-backed lander beats the teams to the lunar surface, the grand prize would be reduced to $15 million.

Richards and Jain have said Moon Express intends to launch its lunar lander as early as 2014. 

More about the Google Lunar X Prize:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.