It turns out that asteroids are more than leftovers from shattered planets -- they could actually help astronauts get to Mars, and contain very valuable resources. Consequently, NASA is very interested, and has enlisted some heavyweight corporate assistance to kickstart the “asteroid economy.”

The U.S. space agency just awarded $4.9 million worth of contracts to companies that will explore public-private partnership opportunities for asteroid initiatives.

“A profitable asteroid industry is upon us,” said David Gump, vice chairman of privately held Deep Space Industries Inc. The company was commissioned for the “Industry Funded Participation in the Asteroid Initiative,” a study that will look into the economic possibilities of a public-private partnership to aid NASA’s asteroid ambitions.

It’s all part of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission. The project aims to seek out asteroids in space and redirect them to orbit around the moon, where they can be studied and explored by astronauts by the early 2020s.

Other corporate players, 18 in total,  include the Boeing Company (NYSE:BA), which will look into special rendezvous sensors and the possibility of retrofitting pre-existing aircraft with new technology. Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT) will examine the possibility of solar electric propulsion module.

“With these system concept studies, we are taking the next steps to develop capabilities needed to send humans deeper into space than ever before, and ultimately to Mars, while testing new technologies to protect Earth from asteroids,” William Gerstenmaier, an administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said Saturday.  

The companies will have the next six months to look into the issues and present their findings.