Less than one month after NASA crashed its Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) into the moon's surface in order to analyze the resulting plume of debris for signs of water, the U.S. space agency is handing out nearly $2 million on Thursday to engineers developing technology for a much softer landing on the lunar surface as part of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge.

The competition consisted of two levels, the second of which was held last week in California's Mojave Desert. Level two required each team's rocket to simulate a full lunar lander mission, including a descent from lunar orbit to the lunar surface, refueling and returning to lunar orbit. Each lander needed to ascend to a height of 50 meters and land safely on a rocky lunar-replica surface after at least 180 seconds of flight time (the first level required only 90 seconds of flight time). This flight then needed to be repeated, with the rocket demonstrating repeat-use capability by returning to the original launch site.

Masten Space Systems, Inc., led by David Masten, takes home $1.15 million, having placed first in the competition's second level and second in the competition's easier first level. The team's Xoie vehicle landed on average within 19 centimeters of its target on the simulated lunar surface. Masten beat out Armadillo Aerospace, which won the competition's first level but placed second in the subsequent level, landing on average within 87 centimeters of its target. Armadillo's overall prize is $650,000.

Four teams had been competing for the Lunar Lander X PRIZE since its announcement in May 2006. Northrop Grumman, the aerospace company that built the original Apollo Lunar Modules used in the 1960s and 1970s, backed this X PRIZE competition as a way of accelerating the commercial development of a new breed of technology for ferrying payloads or humans back and forth between lunar orbit and the lunar surface.

Commercial technology is seen as the best, and perhaps only, option for returning astronauts to the moon. A commission chaired by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norman Augustine determined earlier this year that private-sector development is crucial to NASA's goal of a launching a moon mission by 2020. On its current budget alone, NASA wouldn't be able to get astronauts to the moon until the 2030s, if ever, the commission announced in September.

Image of Masten's lunar lander courtesy of X PRIZE Foundation