Japanese carmaker Honda developing reusable rocket for LEO satellites

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SEOUL, South Korea — Japanese carmaker Honda is developing a partially reusable launch vehicle for small satellites with a test launch to be conducted by 2030. 

The company unveiled the plan Sept. 30, saying its core automotive technologies for combustion, fluid, remote control and guidance will be applied to the rocket.

This is part of Honda’s Vision 2030, under which the Tokyo-based company is also poised to expand its business portfolio into flying cars, also known as electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, multi-fingered avatar robot and energy production on the lunar surface. This multipronged strategy, in turn, could lead to more connected machines — everything from autos to appliances to utilities that are online — and create new services and revenue opportunities in the Earth and outer space.

Credit: Honda Motor Company

“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, according to Nikkei Asia.

Honda said it began work in late 2019 on the engineering requirements for a reusable rocket. “This rocket development was initiated by the proposal made by young Honda engineers who wanted to build a small rocket by utilizing core technologies,” the company said in a Sept. 30 statement.

The automaker said it will spend 5 trillion yen ($45 billion) on research and development over the next six years, but didn’t specify what fraction of that amount will be spent on rocket development. While the rocket’s specifications also remain undisclosed, Nikkei Asia reported it would use liquid propellant and be capable of carrying satellites weighing less than 1 ton to low Earth orbit.

Credit: Honda Motor Company

Honda said avatar robots will be equipped with a multi-fingered hand with the ability to both delicately pick up a small object with the fingertips and the strength to open a tight jar lid, at the level of the human hand. Honda said the robot will be used primarily as a remote surrogate to perform tasks, such as a paramedic controlling the robot to attend to an injured person. But it didn’t rule out the possibility that it could be used in space. The robot is expected to begin technology demonstrations by March 2024 and see “practical use” in the 2030s, the company said.

Regarding energy production on the lunar surface, Honda and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are doing a joint feasibility study on a “circulative renewable energy system” in space, which is designed to supply oxygen, hydrogen, and electricity for crewed lunar orbiters and rovers. They are looking into the possibility of breaking down lunar water into hydrogen and oxygen components, with Honda’s fuel-cell technologies and water electrolysis technologies.