We're heading back to the moon in 2013 (well, a robot is, anyway)

Those multimillion-dollar prizes offered by the X-Prize Foundation to generate interest in scientific research certainly seem to be working. Not only have they gotten US interested—but they may get us back to the moon. And by us, we mean—a robot!

One of the several X-Prizes, the Google Lunar X-Prize, is currently underway, and 21 teams are competing to see which one can land a rover on the surface of the moon, drive it a third of a mile and transmit HD images back to Earth. Now one team, Astrobiotic Technology Inc., has a significant advantage.

Astrobiotic can obviously build a rover, but that's only half the fun: Contestants actually have to transport their rover to the moon, not an easy task, considering the space shuttle is about to retire and Energia, the private company that offers flights to the International Space Station (at a cost of more than $20 million a ticket), is unavailable until 2013.

However, a previous X-Prize, the Ansari X-Prize to develop a reusable manned spacecraft, spurred an interest in private (rather than government-based) spaceflight that is beginning to be realized. And now Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites, Orbital Sciences, Boeing and SpaceX have passenger- and payload-carrying spacecraft in the works.

Now SpaceX has offered a bargain rate to all of the participants of the Lunar X-Prize, and Astrobiotic is the first to snap it up ... which makes it first out of the gate.

According to Popular Science:

Terms of the launch contract were not disclosed, but SpaceX's website says a trip on a Falcon 9 starts at $49.9 million and goes up to $56 million, depending on payload weight. The X Prize website notes that SpaceX has offered all contest participants a discount. Astrobotic is the first to secure a spot, a major advantage over the other competitors—Falcon 9s already have a crowded launch manifest. ...

The rocket won't need any modifications to reach the moon, according to Discovery News, which quotes an email from SpaceX founder Elon Musk. It is already capable of sending a payload like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers as far as Mars, he said.

Whoever wins the Google Lunar X-Prize stands to get at least $20 million and, better yet, their very own lunar rover.

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