At first glance, it looks like R2D2 has finally been blasted into space.

But in fact, the MX-1E from Moon Express could revolutionise space exploration - and pave the way to mine the moon, the Daily Mail reports.

The privately-owned, Cape Canaveral based Moon Express hopes to take America back to the moon 45 years after NASA's last lunar landing, and this week the rocket that could take it there began its final testing.

The firm is developing a fleet of low-cost robotic spacecraft that can be assembled like Legos to handle increasingly complex missions.

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The initial spacecraft, known as MX-1E, is a similar size and shape to the R2D2 droid from Star Wars, and is slated to fly before next year aboard a Rocket Lab Electron booster, which launches from New Zealand.

It will hop across the lunar surface on its legs.

Ultimately the company plans to establish a lunar outpost in 2020 and set up commercial operations on the Moon, mining material and returning it to Earth to sell.

He says the firm could also one day develop lunar colonies.

"I love the thought of kids looking up and seeing lights on the moon," he told Wired.

Moon Express hopes the endeavour will clinch a US$20 million (NZ$29 million) prize from Google, but CEO Bob Richards said the win is not essential.

Moon Express has raised more than US$45 million (NZ$66 million) from private investors to build its first spacecraft and buy launch services.

'The Google Lunar X Prize ... is icing on the cake,' Richards said.

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Google is offering a top prize of US$20 million for the first privately-funded team to land a spacecraft on the moon; have it fly, drive or hop at least 1640 feet (500m) and relay pictures and video back to Earth.

The second prize is $5 million (NZ$7.3 million).

Contenders have until December 31 to launch their spaceships.

Shaped like the Star Wars character R2D2, it will move by hopping on its legs. Photo / Moon Express
Shaped like the Star Wars character R2D2, it will move by hopping on its legs. Photo / Moon Express

Google also is offering bonus money for other milestones, such as traveling 5km, touching down near an Apollo landing site or finding evidence of water.

Richards presented the spacecraft design in Washington on Wednesday, revealing plans for a single, modular spacecraft that can be combined to form successfully larger and more capable vehicles.

Moon Express says it is self-funded to begin bringing kilograms of lunar rocks back to Earth within about three years.

'We absolutely intend to make these samples available globally for scientific research, and make them available to collectors as well,' said Bob Richards, one of the company's founders, in an interview with Ars.

Besides vying for the X Prize, Moon Express will fly science equipment and payloads for at least three paying customers, including Houston-based Celestis, which offers memorial spaceflights for cremated remains.

His parents' ashes will be on the flight.

He said they used to sing the song Fly Me to the Moon to him, "and I'm going to".

The company uses a Diana Krall recording of the song for its telephone hold music.

Richards said the company would pay for the initial mission, with customers funding subsequent ones.

The company plans to set up a permanent robot-operated base on the moon's south pole to prospect for water and other materials.

By 2020, Moon Express expects to return lunar samples to Earth for research and commercial sale.

The MX series of spacecraft also can be scaled up for travel to other destinations, such as the moons of Mars.

The company expects to complete the first spacecraft in September.

The team from the US will be using a hopping lander, and has signed a multi-mission launch contract with Rocket Lab USA for three lunar missions by 2020.