The Hubble Telescope is a device of mind-boggling sophistication that allowed Earthlings to better understand the size and age of the universe. In a few years, it'll be nothing but floating space junk compared to its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST.
Imagine the JWST as an iPhone, and the Hubble Telescope would be two tin cans connected with string. At nearly "100 times the capabilities of Hubble," this new infrared space telescope will literally change the way we look at space. Even the most stone-faced scientists become giddy as schoolgirls talking about the discoveries that are sure to follow its scheduled October 2018 launch.
But what does that mean to us, the Earthbound investors who know that infrared is a type of wavelength, but aren't exactly sure what a wavelength is anyway?
Just like the JWST, let's take a look at the big picture.
To date, the majority of the space industry is made up of manufacturing companies. However, there are some companies that specialize in research and development, satellite services, or space tourism. Of these companies, the most common -- and appropriately sci-fi -- name we hear is SpaceX.
SpaceX is a private company founded by Elon Musk. For the last decade, SpaceX has been on the frontier of the final frontier. Conisder that it was the first privately funded company to do the following:
- Launch a liquid-fuel rocket, in 2008
- Launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft, in 2010
- Send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, in 2012
- Send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit, in 2013
However, as Musk himself tweeted, there are no plans for SpaceX to go public until the "Mars Colonial Transporter is flying regularly"... which sounds a little like "when pigs fly." So if you want to cash in on those space dollars, you'll have to look elsewhere.
One of SpaceX's main competitors is Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), a military contractor that's been dabbling in space manufacturing since the 1950s space race against Russia. CBS News reports that Lockheed Martin recently won the $915 million contract from the Pentagon to build a "space fence" to protect satellites and spacecraft from wayward debris -- it's actually a ground-based radar system to track debris.
Other favorites include Boeing (NYSE:BA), which was essential to the Apollo program and currently provides satellite services for big leaguers like Sirius and DirectTV. There's also up-and-comer Orbital Sciences (NYSE:OA), which has already won a few NASA contracts, including a $1.9 billion contract for ferrying to the International Space Station. Moreover, on April 29, the company announced that it's entering a $5 billion merger with Alliant Techsystems(NYSE:ATK).
JWST what we needed
With NASA at the helm, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency by its sides, and a total of 17 countries on board, JWST is very much an achievement for the entire human race. It better be, after $9 billion and 20 years of planning and construction.
With Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) a prime contractor, this flying observatory will be able to see across millions of miles and also time.
According to NASA's teaser video, "it will be able to peer back in time to see the universe light up with its first stars and galaxies."
And just what will we discover? No one knows, and that's kind of the point. "We will discover new things that we have no way of knowing about today," says Michael Shara, curator in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. "And those will be the great discoveries that actually show up in the coming 20 years, in the coming 30 years. It is really, in many ways, the golden age of astronomy — it's the very best time ever to be an astronomer."
And also, perhaps, an investor.
The asteroid miners of 2032
JWST will be a massive scientific leap, and as such it will bolster the space industry and the sciences in general, as every new discovery will have the potential to create new business. Companies will clamor to apply what we'll learn, whether in space travel, astrophysics, or astronomy. However, keep in mind that these discoveries won't all happen at once; they will likely drift in over the course of decades.
The big players like SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Orbital will have their hands full as new discoveries bring in more demand. But there will also be newcomers to fill new niches -- or old niches that will be made new again.
Look to the stars
The private company Planetary Resources says its goal is "bringing the natural resources of space within humanity's economic sphere of influence." That means asteroid mining. With or without JWST's help, Planetary Resources may achieve its goals in the next few decades and open up a new, lucrative industry of its own.
But that's the thing: JWST's launch could open up any number of new industries that we can't even predict. All we can bet on is that it'll be big.
As trekkies and padawans alike have been hoping for, the 21st century is shaping up to be a space age. When it comes to investing opportunities for the next big market, we're looking to the stars.
Matt Ellis has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Orbital Sciences. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.