Japanese start-up Iwaya Giken aims to popularise high-altitude travel by sending people into the stratosphere in a helium balloon, enabling them to view a stunning spectacle of the Earth from above, Kyodo News reported.
Based in Sapporo in northern Japan, Iwaya Giken began working on the space tourism project in 2012 but completed its first human-crewed test flight in late July. The maiden helium balloon-based flight soared to reach an altitude of 6km (19,700ft).
On July 23, the helium-powered balloon (25 metres in height) lifted off from Iwaya’s testing site in the district of Tokachi in Hokkaido. On board the balloon was Akihito Oikawa, a key employee.
The single-seat cabin, which hangs below the balloon measuring 1.1 meters wide and 1.5 meters high, immediately flew up into the air and out of sight. The airtight cabin is made of special plastics resistant to outside air pressure and temperatures.
After reaching a height of 6,072 meters, gas was released, and the balloon descended. Two hours later, Oikawa landed on a field 26 km from the launch site.
Unlike a rocket or a hot air balloon, helium will lift the Iwaya Giken vessel, which can be largely reused.
The company aims to achieve its final target, a height of 25km, by the end of 2023. If the balloon can reach an altitude of 25km, it will be possible soon for customers to view the blueness of the Earth below and the darkness of space above on their journeys.
Iwaya has already invited applications from the general public for high-altitude tours. It plans to conduct its first commercial flight by March 2024.
The four-hour ride will cost 24 million yen ($164,000) per passenger.
While the flights will initially be expensive, the company wants to bring this down to several million yen (tens of thousands of dollars) as part of its plan to 'democratise space'.
Over 35 company employees have flown aboard the craft for flight training and data collection.
With a successful maiden flight, Iwaya is joining the space tourism race with established players like Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
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