NASA's buying data for future moon missions

And the sellers are small, secretive companies.

As Virgin Galactic's Sir Richard Branson collects deposits for Virgin's $200,000 space tours and courts NASA for a contract to develop his space vehicle, NASA is eyeing missions to the moon.

The space agency announced earlier this month that it is willing to buy data from six of the teams that are still competing for Google's Lunar X Prize, which has a $30 million purse.

The teams are required to design a robot, get it to the moon and have it move half a kilometer and send back data and high-resolution pictures. (There's not been a robot on the moon since the Soviets sent one on their last mission in 1976.)

The deadline for the robots is December 31, 2012, and the prize is $20 million. Another $10 million has been set aside for second place and for special tasks, like finding some of the water ice that was just discovered in the moon's craters.

NASA's announcement looks like a good deal for both the space agency and the X Prize teams. NASA doesn't have to spend anything unless the data is valuable and unique and meets certain milestones -- and even then it's only $10 million worth of data per team. The teams, meanwhile, get another way to fund their projects, and at a cost that's far lower than the billions NASA would have spent on previous robotic moon missions, had they been allowed to continue.

One competitor, Astrobiotic, says the X Prize will spur the business of going to the moon:

Leading firms are developing systems not just to win the prize, which will prove their capability to precisely land and effectively operate on the Moon as early as 2011, but to establish a business of regular missions to collect data, deliver payloads and perform robotic services. A key service will be the confirmation of water ice in the permanently dark craters in the polar regions. Proving the ability to extract oxygen and hydrogen, creating rocket propellant, on the Moon would profoundly improve the productivity of NASA’s lunar program, saving the cost of an expendable lander on every mission while doubling the mass that follow-on Ares V cargo missions can deliver.

Here are the six competitors:

- Astrobiotic, which spun off from Carnegie Mellon and is designing a robot to withstand the moon's extreme equatorial temperatures of 100 degrees Centigrade

- Next Giant Leap, which is still mum on what it's doing

- Omega Envoy, which is considering SpaceX and other small contractors to launch its robot

- Team FREDNET, which has put open source software experts to work on the contest and plans to establish an Open Space Foundation to improve education about space

- The Rocket City Space Pioneers from Huntsville, Alabama, who are developing a low-cost robotic moon lander

- Moon Express, which plans a press conference to say what it's doing soon

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