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Startup unveils balloons for viewing Earth

ASSOCIATED PRESS / FEB. 21
                                Raita Naka, head of public relations for Japanese startup company Iwaya Giken, sits in the two-seater viewing balloon that the company says is capable of rising to an altitude of 15 miles, which is roughly the middle of the stratosphere. Iwaya Giken will offer tours from the balloon to view Earth.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS / FEB. 21

Raita Naka, head of public relations for Japanese startup company Iwaya Giken, sits in the two-seater viewing balloon that the company says is capable of rising to an altitude of 15 miles, which is roughly the middle of the stratosphere. Iwaya Giken will offer tours from the balloon to view Earth.

TOKYO >> Japanese space startup Iwaya Giken announced Feb. 21 it will launch manned viewing balloons into the stratosphere as early as fiscal 2023. The Sapporo-based company has begun accepting applications for the first batch of flights that will carry a total of five passengers and cost about 24 million yen ($175,850) per person.

Japan’s fiscal year runs April 1 to March 31.

The stratosphere is the layer of atmosphere that extends from about 6.2 to 31 miles above the Earth’s surface, and the balloon flights will allow passengers to look down on Earth from a spot relatively close to outer space, which begins at an altitude of about 50 to 60 miles.

Established in 2016, the company developed the gas balloons with an airtight capsule for viewing tours. It has successfully launched an unmanned capsule into the stratosphere and conducted a manned flight at an altitude of more than 60 miles.

The balloon is controlled both wirelessly from the ground and by a pilot. The plastic spherical capsule, nearly 5 feet in diameter, accommodates a pilot and one passenger. Special training and equipment such as space suits are unnecessary, since the structure can withstand a vacuum and maintain an environment similar to that on land.

During a trip, the balloon will ascend to an altitude of 15 miles during the course of about two hours, and passengers will stay in the stratosphere for about one hour before returning back to the launch spot, which will take an hour.

The first launch could be as early as December in Tokachi, Hokkaido prefecture. Those hoping to catch a ride on the balloon can apply through the end of August.

“We want to create opportunities where lots of people can more easily experience space,” said Keisuke Iwaya, CEO of Iwaya Giken.

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