Internet search giant Google on Thursday offered 30 million dollars in prize money for companies to land a robot camera to roam on the moon and send back high-resolution snaps and data.

Google launched Google Moon, a page on its site with images mapping out stretches of the orb's pock-marked surface. They are compiled from photographs taken by previous moon missions including the historic first landing by the Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and crew in 1969.

The site is aimed at encouraging companies interested in the challenge, giving them visuals of the moon "so the teams can scout locations" for a robot camera, Google joked in a blog announcing the competition, launched jointly with the X Prize Foundation which promotes technological innovation.

It offers a 20 million dollar top prize for a vehicle that can move around automatically and transmit data back to Earth and a second prize of five million for a stationary device that sends data.

A five million dollar bonus is offered for a robot vehicle that discovers ice or water, that can travel further than five kilometers or captures images of space vehicles abandoned there from old missions.

The prizes are offered until December 31, 2012, after which a lowered grand prize of 12 million dollars can be won, the company said.

Google's challenge recalls rewards for earlier achievements in flight, such as the 25,000 dollars paid to Charles Lindbergh who in 1927 became the first person to fly across the Atlantic.

"It has been many decades since we explored the moon from the lunar surface, and it could be another six to eight years before any government returns," the foundation said in a statement.

"We hope to usher in an era of commercial exploration and development, in which small companies, groups of individuals and universities can build, launch and explore the moon and beyond."

The prize is counting on just a handful of competitors for what the foundation describes as "a global private race to the moon."

It hopes private companies can develop simpler spacecraft than the heavy duty equipment used by big space agencies such as NASA, which plans another moon landing by 2020.

Several major entrepreneurs have shown an interest in space travel and rockets, such as the co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, and Virgin boss Richard Branson who aspires to run a space tourism agency.

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