Now this is an “only in Japan” kind of technology
It is a brisk night. There’s not a city light on the horizon. The woody smell of a campfire lingers in the air. A snowman of heads pop out of the flap of a tent on the campgrounds, gazing into the endless night sky.
“It was fascinating, it was exciting. I couldn’t believe that the world could be so interesting,” remembers Lena Okajima about the first time she saw stars in elementary school.
The swirl of black holes, an ever expanding space, the seemingly boundless universe surrounding our tiny earth left a lasting impression on Lena. Her first loves were Einstein and Hawking. She followed her heart into astronomy and physics at Japan’s top university in Tokyo, taking a trip to see one of the largest observable meteor showers with her classmates in 2001.
Wish upon a star
“It was the first time I saw shooting stars stream all the way across the sky. I couldn’t describe it in words.”
“In an hour you can see 100 meteors. If the view is good maybe even 200,” she smiles. Although her major was astronomy, she focused more on theory and was embarrassed when she couldn’t point out the constellations.
Lena asked her classmate what made shooting stars.
“Particles?” she repeated. “If it’s particles, then maybe it could be artificially made?” Lena stashed the idea in her head and continued on to graduate school. After completing her doctorate she joined Goldman Sachs on the suggestion of a friend. She hoped to learn more about raising money and dreamed about starting a fund of her own someday for long-term scientific research.
Long banking hours and the financial crisis brought her back down to earth. She left after a year.
Space, the entertainment frontier
At 30, Lena started a consulting company with friends. She dedicated part of her time each week to explore artificial meteor showers. But two years in and unhappy with the hours with a family of her own, she founded Ale to pursue the shooting star idea and return to her own childhood dreams.
Ale’s first project, “Sky Canvas,” aims to make space the next entertainment frontier. Ale will partner with private space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Axelspace to bring a meteor producing micro-satellite into orbit. The satellite will release small pellets into the atmosphere to create an intricate light show for those on earth to enjoy with an area 400 times greater than a fireworks display.
“We are making something not made before,” explains Lena, aware of the risks. “If we mess something up it can be a huge sacrifice to the industry.”
Safety is a top priority. The team will use a database of satellite positions to make sure they don’t get in the way of other vessels. Lena also points out that their orbit is lower than the majority of objects whizzing about the earth.
So far, the team has completed luminescence tests to make sure their meteors will be visible in the sky. Now they are working on operation and vibration tests to be sure the pellet release mechanism works properly. Ale plans to test everything in zero gravity later this year and have the first satellite up by 2018. Each launch will cost a few million dollars and each satellite will have a lifetime of two to three years.
“Sky Canvas” is just the first project she hopes to tackle. Lena sees it as a “swing-by,” which NASA famously used to send the Voyager spacecraft out of our solar system.
“We will gather speed from the gravity of the shooting stars idea. Then stop by each new project, or planet, along the way. Each time picking up more and more speed and moving farther and farther away.”
Editing by Steven Millward and Meghna Rao
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.