Exploring new possibilities in space, astrophysicist Lena Okajima is turning our night sky into a canvas with her spectra of artificial shooting stars
The Nishiizu Skyline road is a winding one. Two hours south of Tokyo’s neon lights, the curved route traverses the ridgeline of the Daruma Mountain, an elevation affording commanding views of Mount Fuji. It’s a fittingly named road for one that opens itself up to the vast sky, and the perfect escape for astrophysicist turned entrepreneur, Lena Okajima. “For me, it’s important to step away from the city,” she explains as we pull over in the Deep Blue Mica Lexus LS to take in the scenic vista. “When I come up here I see alternate perspectives—the drive itself allows me to contemplate the future.”
Envisioning what that future might look like has become a pivotal part of the forty-year-old doctor of astronomy’s remit. For Okajima, achieving seemingly impossible feats in space is core to her mission. Her idea? To create the world’s first on-demand shooting stars. Founding her company ALE Co., Ltd. (ALE) in 2011, the space entertainment start-up is now well on its way to producing the first artificial meteor shower using microsatellites. Okajima’s pioneering determination will result in spectacular displays of shooting stars across our night sky while simultaneously advancing space science.
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“Ever since I read [Stephen] Hawking’s book in high school I wanted to be a space physicist,” says Okajima relaxing in the power recliner back seat as we head north on the 100-mile journey to the ALE office in Tokyo. But it wasn’t until she witnessed the 2001 Leonid meteor shower that her idea began to formulate.
Okajima was, quite literally, star-struck: “This shower was huge! It was the most active in three decades with bright meteors streaked across the sky,” she says, admiring the view out the window as the LS handles the curves of the road with reassuring ease. Okajima questioned how she could recreate such a marvel: “Back in 2001, I was still a student and creating shooting stars was just an idea,” she says. “There was an opportunity at my university to create concepts for satellites that were smaller than before. It was at this point that my two ideas for the shooting stars and microsatellites collided.”
A decade later, in 2011, after stints working for Goldman Sachs and a venture in games programming, Okajima set up ALE. As we arrive at her office, the ever data-driven Okajima observes that the activity tracker on her watch has barely registered our two-hour journey. “It usually increases count when I drive but this journey was very smooth,” she says, laughing at her own calculation. It’s these fine-tuned details that Okajima quietly takes note of in the car—the precision of the Kiriko glass work, the delicately pleated interior trim and the exceptional sound coming from the 3D-surround Mark Levinson audio: “I really respect the car manufacturers as they’re not only making these stylish, high quality details,” she says, gliding her hand over the door’s interior, “but they’re also ensuring their cars are safe to drive.” And it’s this level of expertise illustrated with Lexus that Okajima is keen to establish at ALE.
“Compared to other space start-ups, we are more focused on engineers who have worked in manufacturing companies,” she explains. “Of course, science and a space industry background is important—however, I value engineers who have created a commodity of this kind because they are very sophisticated and innovative—that quality excites me.”
With Okajima’s direction as CEO, ALE has designed and manufactured several microsatellites, with one already in orbit around the Earth. To create the artificial meteor shower, the satellite will release 400 particles into the mesosphere. These particles will travel approximately one fifth of the way around the planet reacting with air plasma to create a series of luminous tails as they burn up, which will be seen by spectators as shooting stars.
Not unlike the Lexus brand, safety and precision are primary considerations at the eight-year-old company. “We can produce really realistic shooting stars and this is a key technology of ours at ALE. There are sensors to calculate the angles and they completely burn up before they reach 60kms [above the Earth] making it very safe!” The inaugural launch is scheduled for 2020 with ALE customizing both the colors and configuration—a factor that can be tailored to each of their events.
Growing up in Tottori, Japan, Okajima spent her childhood stargazing. “It’s the prefecture with the least population in Japan—even in the town, there’s not much light so you can actually see the Milky Way,” she says. “I loved watching stars there.” Once Okajima began her studies in Tokyo she continued with this passion, studying for a PhD in Observational Cosmology with many classes held at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), a destination we are now driving to as the sun begins to set.
“I think it was Hawking who said; ‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet… wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious,’” says Okajima, gazing around the circular room dominated by its telescope. For Okajima, sparking curiosity in the form of entertainment is simply the trigger to inspire a greater interest in science and the universe. “My motivation is not just to entertain, she asserts. “Yes, we provide entertainment on the ground but we are also collecting data of the middle atmosphere in order to understand climate changes, enhance weather forecasting and safely burn-up space debris.”
Okajima’s pioneering vision will enable ALE to have the data to understand this level of our atmosphere. Yet, achieving visionary displays such as this is not without its challenges. “There’s no market yet, everything we are doing is brand new,” she says. Looking up at the spectra of stars, Okajima is quick to add: “My wish is that by pushing forward to develop science and connect it to society more people will recognize that our Earth is very important. Maybe then we can tend to it with careful solutions.”
Learn more about ALE and their progress at the ALE Homepage.