updated 9/30/2009 7:03:10 PM ET 2009-09-30T23:03:10

As the economy struggles on earth, some companies are setting their sights on more out-of-this-world opportunities.

About 120 companies that make products or offer services ranging from communications satellites to rocket-powered vehicles capable of sending ordinary people into space gathered Wednesday at Boston's Hynes Convention Center for the seventh Space Investment Summit.

The summit aims to educate entrepreneurs on how to attract seed and early-stage investment money, while letting investors know about space-related business opportunities.

Ventures being discussed included the potential to monitor polar icecaps from space, generate energy off-earth, mine asteroids and use microgravity to develop new drugs for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

"There are plenty of opportunities to do some really good science up there," said Michael Leventhal, an attorney and business consultant.

There is potential for a large and profitable market for space businesses, but many come with large startup costs. Some speakers said the ventures may need to be funded initially through partnerships with the government.

Right now, the most well-known space-related ventures are flight vehicles that will take tourists into space. Virgin Group Chief Richard Branson and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos have invested their own money in space tourism.

But even those ventures have been hurt by the recession.

In July, Branson signed a deal to sell about a third of his space travel startup Virgin Galactic to a Mideast investment fund, giving the venture an influx of cash. Virgin Group has pumped more than $100 million into its space flight venture since 2004 and hopes to begin commercial flights within two years.

Paul Eckert, an international and commercial strategist with Boeing Co., a sponsor of the summit, said commercial opportunities in space go well beyond space tourism.

"We're talking about space-related business deals, entrepreneurial ventures, any kind of connection with space, not just in space, but involving space — it could be spacesuits, components that might fit into antennae, anything that involves space," Eckert said.

"What we're trying to do is gradually help more and more space-related entrepreneurs present business plans in a way that is going to be attractive to investors," Eckert said.

Rosanna Sattler, a Boston attorney who advises space and telecommunications companies, said the economic downturn has made investors less willing to pour money into the space industry. But she said she has seen some positive movement recently.

"They do have money, but they just aren't investing it as quickly as they used to," Sattler said. "I think this is a perfect time for the venture capitalists and the investors to really look at this market."

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