Why are space planes in the limelight again in Japan and abroad?

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TOKYO — Japanese and overseas companies are taking up the challenge of developing “spaceplanes,” or winged space vehicles.

While the US space shuttle was once the primary means of getting into Earth orbit, today people and satellites fly rockets into space. So why is the space shuttle attracting attention again?

Nagoya-based venture capital firm PD AeroSpace, founded in 2007, is one player in the spaceplane game. The company has patented technology that allows an engine to switch between jet mode, which sucks in air for combustion, and rocket mode, with a built-in oxidizer to propel the plane through a vacuum.

PD AeroSpace plans its Pegasus space plane to take off in jet mode like a conventional aircraft, climb to an altitude of 15 kilometers and then switch to rocket mode to propel the spacecraft to a height of 50 km. Pure inertia will then carry it beyond the frontier of space 100 km and then 110 km above our planet, before returning to Earth. This is an example of what is called “suborbital spaceflight” due to its parabolic trajectory, like a bullet fired rising and then falling.

The flight would take 90 minutes, with five minutes of weightlessness, and travelers would have a panoramic view of the Earth below. With only a rocket mode, a craft descends like a glider, so there may be little time adjustment at altitude and a dedicated spaceport is required for landing. But with an added jet mode, the PD AeroSpace ship can land at a regular airport.

The company is developing unmanned space planes and plans to perform suborbital spaceflight by 2024, aiming to travel to manned space by 2029.

But why space planes now? Perhaps because space has become “closer” to us. As private companies move into the space at an accelerated pace, many expect high demand for sightseeing flights. It’s still fresh in our minds that Yusaku Maezawa, founder and former chairman of Japanese online clothing giant Zozo Inc., completed a 12-day space journey in December 2021.

There is also a demand for cheaper and easier ways to take advantage of space. One-day suborbital flights could be an interesting option.

The VSS Unity spaceplane, developed by Virgin Galactic of the British Virgin Group, reached an altitude of 85 km in July 2021. The jet mothership carrying VSS Unity takes off from a regular runway, and the spacecraft breaks off in air and heading into space.

Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos also successfully completed a suborbital space journey in July 2021 with New Shepard, a spacecraft developed by his private space company Blue Origin. The crew capsule is mounted on a reusable rocket.

In anticipation of the era of space travel, several space port projects have been launched around the world. There are also plans to build private space hotels and space stations.

The demand for space transportation will change and grow in many directions.

(Japanese original by Junichi Tsuchiya, Department of Science and Environmental News)

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