Japanese startup unveils balloon flight space tours

Iwaya Giken PR boss Raita Naka at the company's launch on Tuesday.

Iwaya Giken PR boss Raita Naka at the company's launch on Tuesday. Photo: AAP

A Japanese startup plans to launch commercial space viewing balloon flights that it hopes will bring an otherwise astronomically expensive experience down to Earth.

Company CEO Keisuke Iwaya said passengers did not need to be billionaires, go through intense training or have the language skills needed to fly in a rocket.

“It’s safe, economical and gentle for people,” Mr Iwaya said on Tuesday. “The idea is to make space tourism for everyone.”

He said he wanted to “democratise space.”

The company, Iwaya Giken, based in Sapporo in northern Japan, has been working on the project since 2012 and says it has developed an airtight two-seat cabin and a balloon capable of rising up to an altitude of 25 kilometres, where the curve of the Earth can be clearly viewed.

While passengers won’t be in outer space – the balloon goes only up to roughly the middle of the stratosphere – they’ll be higher than a jet plane flies and have an unobstructed view of outer space.

The company teamed up with major Japanese travel agency JTB Corp, which announced plans to collaborate on the project when the company is ready for a commercial trip.

Initially, a flight would cost about 24 million yen ($263,000), but Mr Iwaya said he aimed to eventually bring it down to tens of thousands of dollars.

While Japanese space ventures have fallen behind US companies such as SpaceX, Mr Iwaya said his aim was to make space more reachable.

SpaceX launched three rich businessmen and their astronaut escort to the International Space Station in April for $US55 million ($80 million) each – the company’s first private charter flight to the orbiting lab after two years of carrying astronauts there for NASA.

But unlike a rocket or a hot air balloon, the Iwaya Giken vessel will be lifted by helium that can be largely reused, company officials say, and flights will safely stay above Japanese territory or airspace. The first trip is planned as early as later this year.

The balloon, which can carry a pilot and a passenger, would take off from a balloon port in Hokkaido, rise for two hours to as high as 25 kilometres and stay there for one hour before a one-hour descent.

The drum-shaped plastic cabin is 1.5 metres in diameter and has several large windows to allow a view of space above or the Earth below, the company said.

Applications for a space viewing ride opened on Tuesday and will continue through the end of August. The first five passengers selected will be announced in October.


Topics: Japan
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