Japan's Iwaya near-space balloon reaches over 3 miles

Founded by a 37-year-old aerospace engineer, Iwaya has just completed a vital test flight for its near-space balloon to get tourists as close to space as possible in a balloon.
Christopher McFadden
Keisuke Iwaya's near-space balloon
Keisuke Iwaya's near-space balloon

PR Times 

Japanese startup Iwaya is planning to build a giant helium-filled balloon capable of carrying people to altitudes of 25 km. The project aims to enable tourists to get one of the best views possible of Earth without going into space. To this end, the company recently reached a significant milestone by successfully ascending its balloon to 19,700 feet (6 km) and safely descending again with a manned crew. They hope to reach 82,021 feet (25 km) by the end of 2023.

Up and away

The company in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, claims that once their balloon reaches that altitude, customers can witness the blue Earth below and the dark space above on their trips. However, this experience will not be affordable for the average individual, with a price tag of around $164,000 a head.

Aboard the balloon, Akihito Oikawa, who works in the space development section of a startup, made the trip in a compact single-seat cabin measuring 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) wide and 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) high. Once the balloon reached a height of 19,921 feet (6,072 meters), gas was released, and it began to descend. After about two hours, Oikawa landed in a field 16 miles (26 km) from the launch site.

The balloon stands at about 8 feet (25 meters) tall from the bottom of the cabin and is made of special air-tight plastics that resist outside air pressure and temperatures. It also comes with life support systems to enable passengers to breathe at altitudes over 13,123 feet (4 km). Iwaya says it will be able to achieve an even greater altitude with a larger balloon.

Keisuke Iwaya, a 37-year-old who studied aerospace engineering at Hokkaido University, founded Iwaya in April 2016 to make "near-space tourism by balloon" a reality. Although outer space is typically considered to be at an altitude exceeding 62 miles(100km), the company notes that the "spectacle of the blue Earth" can be viewed from the stratosphere at an altitude of 15.5 miles (25 km).

Iwaya is accepting applications for high-altitude tours and plans to launch its first commercial flight in March 2024. The company has received more applications than expected despite the high cost of 24 million yen (US$164,000) per passenger for the four-hour ride.

The announcement of successful applicants is expected in early October, followed by an orientation session in November and December. Typically, space travel is only accessible to the wealthy elite. However, Iwaya's project aims to change that by making it more affordable for people to experience Earth's unique view from above without relying on expensive rocket-based space travel.

Cheaper space tourism

According to Keisuke Iwaya, the company has partnered with travel agencies to lower costs to around 1 million yen eventually. Their initial goal is to successfully conduct a manned flight to an altitude of 7.5 miles (12 km), with ambitions to reach their ultimate goal of 15.5 miles (25 km) later this year.

The startup aims to prioritize safety while popularizing space travel.

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