Google's race to space got underway Thursday with the first team — Odyssey Moon, a private enterprisebased in the Isle of Man andbacked by Canada's MDALtd. — announcing its candidacy for the search company's $30-million US Lunar X prize.

The enterprise isled byRobert Richards, one of the founders of the International Space University near Strasbourg,France, and chaired by Ramin Khadem,who has worked inthe satellite industry and is the former chief financial officer of satellite communications firm Inmarsat.

The group announced its plans to enter Google's contest, which seeks to lower the cost of commercial flights to the moon, at the Space Investment Summit in San Jose, Calif.

Richards said competitionssuch asthe Google prize are the key to speeding space exploration.

"We believe in competition and we believe in this prize," he said in a statement."Future generations will view the Google Lunar X prize as the turning point of the 21st century, when humanity realized the moon's critical role for prosperity and survival in space and on Earth."

The Odyssey Moon group announced that Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. will be its primary contractor. MDA has extensive space experience, having helped design robotics on the space shuttles and theInternational Space Station,and has performed recentsatellite servicing and planetary exploration tasks, the group said.

The Planetary Society, a California-based research group co-founded by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, is also part of the Odyssey Moon group and will assist in education and public involvement,while acting as the project's international liaison.

"The moon is a stepping stone into the solar system, for governments and for the private sector," said Louis Friedman, the society's executive director. "Odyssey Moon's leap forward to this stepping stone could presage a new day of commercial ventures beyond Earth."

Google announced its Lunar X prize in September, challenging contestants to land on the moon and successfully beam back a gigabyte of images and video to Earth after completing a 500-metre trek on the surface. To claim the full prize, a team would have to complete the mission before Dec. 31, 2012.