Touchdown confirmed: at precisely 20:55 GMT on 18 February, Dr Swati Mohan, the project lead on Nasa’s latest Mars mission, duly announced the successful landing of the Perseverance rover to a cheering room of engineers at the administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission control in California.
The landing marked Nasa’s most ambitious and technologically advanced mission to the red planet ever. Perseverance has already sent some spectacular images of Mars back to Earth; it could yet find signs of extra-terrestrial life. These are heady days for Nasa that recall the glory years of space exploration in the 1960s and 1970s.
For investors looking for their next opportunity, it also signalled renewed excitement about the prospects of investing in an ever-expanding universe of stocks that have exposure to space travel. For starters, Nasa didn’t do this alone: a huge number of companies contributed to the project. Lockheed Martin (US:LMT) built the heat shield, Aerojet Rocketdyne (US:AJRD) built the rocket thrusters and Maxar Technologies (US:MAXR) delivered the robotic arm. And there are even greater opportunities beyond Nasa missions as the privately owned SpaceX and recently-listed Virgin Galactic (US:SPCE) take up the mantle.
Falling costs, technological advances and increasing interest from governments and the public alike are already conspiring to make space exploration the next multi-trillion-dollar opportunity for investors. On the one hand, you have Nasa, working closely with aerospace giants and embodying the old order of competing nations in the international space race. On the other, you have your eccentric billionaires in jumpsuits launching world-first space tourist vessels and trying to colonise Mars. Together, it’s an exciting space to be in.
First disclaimer: the use of the word ‘next’ in the prior paragraph is not entirely fitting. Space investing is nothing new. Articles about space being the ‘final frontier’ for investors have been doing the rounds for many years (writers and editors hate to let an obvious pun pass them by).
Many readers will be familiar with the asteroid mining craze from a few years ago. The likes of Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources promised much but fizzled: sending diggers into space to mine large chunks of ice and rock hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour remains some way away. Their wings may have been clipped, but the latest crop of companies look to be more sustainable.
Space exploration has been on some investors’ radars for years, but in the past year we have seen the most exciting progress yet – this is a sector only just beginning to take off.
In January, Cathie Wood’s ARK Investment Management announced plans to launch a space exploration exchange traded fund (ETF). The ETF, which will be called ARKX, will invest at least 80 per cent in US and foreign stocks engaged in space exploration and innovation. It follows the launch of the Procure Space ETF (UFO) in 2019, which invests in a broad range of companies associated with space exploration.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic programme has garnered much attention and investor enthusiasm, not least among Reddit traders. But nothing – and no one person – has quite captured our collective intergalactic imagination as much as SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk.
Last year was a big one for the company. Not only did it launch 26 missions in 2020, chiefly as part of the Starlink satellite-internet project, but two of SpaceX’s launches took astronauts to the International Space Station. These were the first crewed missions to take off from the US since Nasa grounded its shuttle fleet in 2011. In short, it was kind of a big deal because these are still very early days in the story of crewed space travel. It was also something of a watershed moment in terms of the private sector’s role with the US government in space travel.
And let’s not forget Donald Trump’s US Space Force, which has spawned a Netflix series and much mockery (not least for its logo bearing a striking resemblance to that of Starfleet in Star Trek). Nonetheless, it highlights how governments are increasingly worried about who controls space – and therefore are taking a greater interest than at any time since the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s. It has a $15bn budget this year and is already reported to be working with SpaceX and Blue Origin, the space company…
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