Private space company Astrobotic Technology says it's signed a contract with SpaceX to launch a robotic payload to the moon as soon as December next year.
The expedition will search for water and deliver payloads, with the robot narrating its adventure while sending 3D video.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 upper stage will launch the Astrobotic mission on its four-day journey to the moon. It will orbit for a while to align itself before landing using technologies pioneered by Carnegie Mellon University for guiding autonomous cars.
The rover will explore for three months, operating continuously during the lunar days and hibernating through the night.
"The mission is the first of a serial campaign," said Dr William Whittaker, chairman of Astrobotic Technology and founder of the university’s Field Robotics Center.
"Astrobotic’s missions will pursue new resources, deliver rich experiences, serve new customers and open new markets. Spurred further by incentives, contracts, and the Google Lunar X Prize, this is a perfect storm for new exploration."
If successful, the trip could net Astrobotic up to $24 million from Google’s Lunar X Prize, along with a $2 million launch bonus from Florida and a $10 million contract from NASA for access to the expedition’s engineering data on lunar landing technologies.
The company also has a NASA assignment to design a lunar mining robot to recover the frozen volatiles at the poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for their return to Earth.
Other expeditions will explore 'skylight' holes and lunar caves as possible havens from temperature extremes, radiation exposure and micrometeorite bombardment.
Astrobotic also to launch a robot into orbit round the moon, outrunning lunar sundown and avoiding the immobilizing cold of the two-week night.