An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: NASA on Tuesday took a tentative step toward contracting with private companies to send scientific payloads to the surface of the Moon, beginning as early as next year. The space agency hasn't committed to funding these projects yet, but this may be a signal the agency is interested in a wider program to explore the Moon. The agency released a request for information (RFI) for a "Small Lunar Surface Payload" program that recognizes the ability of several US companies to develop robots to land on the Moon. The timing coincides with the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which requires entrants to land a small spacecraft on the surface of the Moon by the end of 2017. "NASA is asking for information about small instruments that could be placed on small lunar landers, and our interest is that we want to address our strategic knowledge gaps," said John Guidi, deputy director of the advanced exploration systems division within NASA's human spaceflight division. Those knowledge gaps -- which NASA is studying to increase the effectiveness and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration missions to the Moon -- include understanding the availability of resources, such as water ice, as well as better understanding how the lunar environment will affect human life and the ability to work and live on the lunar surface for long periods of time. By using low-cost private launchers and small, privately developed payloads, the space agency hopes to find answers to some of these research questions within its limited exploration budget. One of the private companies interested in providing delivery services, Moon Express, responded to the government's proposal with one of its own on Tuesday. The US company announced a program to provide $1.5 million in cash and services to support private payloads that NASA selects to fly to the Moon. Effectively, the company will be offering its services at a discount, providing up to $500,000 in funding for each instrument NASA chooses to fly on Moon Express' first three spacecraft.