A startup in Sapporo, Japan plans to launch a space balloon that will float 25 kilometers into the stratosphere, where tourists will be able to enjoy the curvature of the Earth.
Space tourism has been emblematic of a futuristic lifestyle ever since the first humans were in space in the 1960s. Once proven possible, it only seemed logical that decades later we would do interplanetary weekend travel.
Iwaya Giken said its customers will be able to take a trip to space by the end of this year. The experience will include a two-hour ascent, allowing space balloon occupants to enjoy the view for an hour before returning to land in the ocean.
The company says passengers won’t need special training to make the trip because there is still gravity at the height the balloon reaches. The cost of a single trip will be around 24 million yen ($178,100) per person, although this is expected to drop.
“In the future, we will be able to lower the price to between 1 million yen and 2 million yen,” said company president Keisuke Iwaya, 36. The balloon, whose prototype was shown at an event on February 21, measures 41 meters high and has a spherical double cabin with a diameter of 1.5 meters.
The cabin is designed to be unaffected by changes in temperature and air pressure and is equipped with life-support equipment supported by parachutes in case of emergency. The company has already conducted more than 300 flight tests – so far the balloon has reached 40 kilometers in the sky.
A space balloon seems safer than a rocket ship
Aimed at further strengthening Japan’s base in space exploration, the H-3 rocket was launched on February 17. However, the ship didn’t get far: an anomaly in the main engine meant that hopes were dashed before liftoff.
The second attempt on March 7 failed more spectacularly: after 13 minutes and 55 seconds in the air, the rocket had to be forced to self-destruct by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa said, “We would like to take measures leading up to a second H-3 launch and beyond after analyzing what happened from a technical point of view.” Apparently, the March 7 launch at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture is went according to plan in the first five minutes: the main engine of the rocket’s first stage stopped working, and its second stage successfully separated – but failed to ignite.
JAXA estimated that the H-3 would not be able to place the Daichi-3 Earth observation satellite into its intended orbit. The satellite was lost in the failure.
The H-3’s second engine is believed to be an improvement on the engine of what is currently Japan’s flagship missile, the H-2A. The H-3’s control equipment was supposed to send an ignition signal to the second stage engine; JAXA is investigating where the signal failed to reach the engine, or if it was sent at all.
Shinya Matsuura, a science and technology journalist, said that “second degree engine failure is rare. The problem may be with the ignition mechanism, the control system or the electrical system, not the second stage engine itself.”
The Japanese government was shocked by the failure, insisting that the first launch on February 17 was “aborted” and not “failed”. The H-3 rocket is necessary not only for the expansion of Japan’s space business, but also for its entire space policy.
With Iwaya Giken planning to hire five passengers and one pilot for the first round of space balloon flights by the end of this year, the H-3 launch failure came two years behind schedule. Because the missile self-destructed, the cause of the problem will be difficult to identify, and there are no plans to retrieve its parts from the seabed.
“If [the failure] is due to complex technical issues, it may take years before the next launch,” said Yasunori Matogawa, professor emeritus at JAXA. “This would affect the future of MMX and the delay [H-3’s] entering the Artemis program.
Does the result of the H-3 launch make the realization of space tourism further? At the very least, we think the Sapporo startup will struggle to find volunteers for a test drive.