NASA announced Tuesday a $250,000 prize for the team that can win a lunar dirt-digging contest that will take place here on Earth.

The competition will pit robots to see which can excavate the most lunar regolith (a fancy word for soil) and deliver it to a collector. The challenge will be held in late 2006 or early 2007.

Details will be provided later this year, according to a NASA statement.

The competition, designed to help support the effort to explore the Moon robotically in advance of sending humans there again, is in collaboration with the California Space Education and Workforce Institute (CSEWI).

"Excavation of lunar regolith is an important and necessary step toward using the resources on the Moon to establish a successful base for life on its surface," said NASA's acting Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Douglas Cooke.

"This challenge continues NASA's efforts to broaden interest in innovative concepts," said Brant Sponberg, NASA's Centennial Challenges program manager.

The competition is also designed to give the little guy a shot.

"This is a challenge that places all companies, institutions and individuals on a level playing field, thereby widening the doors of opportunity for technology innovators," said CSEWI Director, the Honorable Andrea Seastrand. "While welcoming entities with existing NASA relationships, this challenge stimulates and reaches out to the nation's untapped intellectual capital."

Earlier this year NASA announced similar competitions designed to spur space privatization.

More information on the Centennial Challenges is available here.