NASA has promised to award $250,000 to the first team that proves it can extract breathable oxygen from lunar surface material , the latest award in the space agency’s Centennial Challenges program.

The cash prize is the reward for winners of the agency’s Moon Regolith Oxygen (MoonROx) challenge, the third contest set by NASA to encourage development of a commercial space industry.

In the MoonROx contest, NASA and the Florida Space Research Institute (FSRI) challenge inventors to pull at least 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of breathable oxygen from a volcanic ash-derived substance called JSC-1, which will serve as a substitute for lunar surface material.

But it doesn’t end there. Participants not only have to extract the oxygen but also must do it within eight hours. The competition ends June 1, 2008.

“Oxygen-extraction technologies will be critical for both robotic and human missions to the moon,” said Sam Durrance, executive director for FSRI. “Like other space-focused prize competitions, the MoonROx challenge will encourage a broad community of innovators to develop technologies that expand our capabilities.”

Earlier this year, NASA detailed two other centennial challenges.

The 2005 Beam Power Challenge will award $50,000 to the first team that uses wireless technology to lift a weight off the ground. Such technology eventually could be employed to beam payloads off Earth.

Meanwhile, the 2005 Tether Challenge calls for teams to build the strongest tether of a specific diameter. The tethers will be stretched to the breaking point, with winners advancing through the ranks toward a final showdown with NASA’s “house tether,” made of existing material. Beat the house tether and you snag $50,000.

NASA plans to set aside about $80 million toward Centennial Challenge prizes over the next five years. Partly spurred by the $10 million Ansari X Prize for a private, manned suborbital spaceflight — which was snared last year by Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne — the cash prizes also are geared to help support NASA’s space exploration vision.

That vision, announced by U.S. President George W. Bush on Jan. 14, 2004, calls for a resumption of human missions to the moon by 2020, with a subsequent push to Mars and beyond.

“The use of resources on other worlds is a key element of the vision for space exploration,” said Craig Steidle, NASA’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems mission directorate, in a statement. “This challenge will reach out to inventors who can help us achieve the vision sooner.”