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Dr. Buzz Aldrin, right, an Apollo astronaut, responds to a question while Bob Weiss, left, vice-chairman of the X Prize Foundation, Google co-founder Larry Page, second from left, and Dr. Peter Diamondis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation listen at a news conference on Thursday. ((Ric Francis/Associated Press))

Not satisfied with simply displaying images of the moon, internet searchgiant Google Inc. isfurnishing as much as $30 million USfor a competitionto pull offan unmanned lunar landing, the company announced Thursday.

The company announced the Google Lunar X Prize with partner the X Prize Foundation — the group that sponsored a 2004 sub-orbital space flight competition — at Wired magazine's NextFest in Los Angeles.

The competition, open to private companies around the world, also has a multimedia twist: The $20-million US winning prize will go to the first team that can successfully beam back a gigabyte of images and video to Earth after their machine completes a 500-metre trek on the moon.

To claim the full prize, the lunar lander would have to arrive on the moon and complete the mission by Dec. 31, 2012. The prize falls to $15 million US if the landing takes place by Dec. 31, 2014. A second-place winner receives $5 million US, with an additional $5 millionUS reserved for other accomplishments.

"Google is really excited about this particular effort because we believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and its ability to accomplish the most ambitious tasks," company co-founder Sergei Brin said in a statement. "When the original Ansari X Prize was launched, it was considered unimaginable that private individuals could commercially venture into space, and yet that was accomplished."

In 2004, the Ansari X Prize awarded $10 million US to Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen, who were able to twice launch a rocket — called SpaceShipOne — carrying a person into suborbital space.

X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis said the private exploration of space could lead to solutions to environmental problems on earth, including energy dependence and climate change.

"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," he said in a statement.

Google recently began providing maps of the moon andMars and other stellar views as an add-on to its Google Earth program.