TOKYO -- Honda Motor will launch a test rocket by 2030 as it looks to enter the small satellite launch business, the Japanese car company announced Thursday, applying combustion-engine and other automotive technologies to new areas, even as the car industry shifts to electric vehicles.
The satellite launch business is heating up and includes startups such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk's SpaceX, as private companies look to space as a new growth market.
Honda says it will halve small satellite launch costs by reusing rockets. Such launches typically run as high as 5 billion yen ($44.6 million) with single-use rockets. Honda plans to return its rocket plane to the launch pad for reuse. The idea is to apply autonomous technology to make the vehicles available for repeated use more cheaply than its peers.
The company plans to develop a small rocket capable of carrying satellites weighing less than 1 ton.
The carmaker will raise its research and development spending to record 5 trillion yen over the next six years, as it seeks to turn the rocket business into a pillar on par with the EV business.
In addition to applying autonomous driving technology to flight control and guidance for reusable rockets, the company will also apply combustion technology developed for gasoline engines. Honda, which set up a dedicated team to oversee the satellite launch business in 2019, will refine its prototype engine before entering the commercial market.
The rocket will carry small satellites used for communications and ground observations into orbit at an altitude of 500 km to 2,000 km. Small satellites are expected to find new applications, including measuring concentrations of greenhouse gases and gathering location data for self-driving cars.
Indian research specialist Markets and Markets forecasts the small satellite launch business will be worth $7.1 billion in 2025, up from $2.8 billion last year. Honda decided to enter the fray, believing it could help ease a shortage of rockets and "help meet demand for satellite launches," according to a company executive.
Honda's experience with internal combustion engines will also come in handy in developing liquid-fuel rockets. The company has been working on a launch vehicle since the end of 2019 and has come up with a prototype engine in just under two years. Honda's expertise in minimizing the weight of its cars should also help reduce the cost of its rockets.
"Technologies for rocket combustion and control and lower costs are already in the hands of automakers. We will just change the field where the technologies are applied," said Honda CEO Toshihiro Mibe.
Honda is entering a crowded commercial space business. More than 100 companies around the world are said to be working on small rockets; some have already succeeded in launching them.
The biggest player is SpaceX, led by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Its midsize Falcon 9 can launch many small satellites at once.
U.S.-based Rocket Lab has its own launch pad and uses 3D printers to launch satellites at a cost of around 500 million yen each. Another U.S. company, Virgin Orbit, had its first successful commercial launch this summer.
As the car industry turns its attention to electric vehicles, it is expected that profit margins will narrow due to intensifying competition from new entrants. Honda has diversified into new areas by leveraging technologies it has honed for use in automotive engines, such as the small jet it developed in 2015. As for the satellite launch business, Mibe said it will grow, becoming "a key by 2040 to 2050."
Honda also announced Thursday that it will expand into flying cars, also known as electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles. The use of hybrid power systems, which combine a combustion engine and an electric motor, are expected to extend the range of such flying cars to 400 km. The company will initially aim to commercialize the vehicles for transportation between cities in North America in the 2030s.
Honda said it will develop its own eVTOL plane, but will look for partners with expertise in airframe technology, flying car infrastructure and regulatory issues.