Russian Soyuz rocket launches 38 satellites on first fully commercial mission

A Russian Soyuz rocket (opens in new tab) sent 38 satellites into space Monday (March 22), marking a historic rideshare mission for Russian company GK Launch Services.

This was the first time the company sent a fully commercial space mission aloft with no main, Russian government satellite on the rocket, according to media reports.

The rocket lifted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome (opens in new tab) in Kazakhstan at 2:07 a.m. EDT (0607 GMT or 11:07 local time). It was painted blue and white in honor of the cosmodrome's long history of sending people into space, with the 60th anniversary of the first-ever human spaceflight (opens in new tab) coming up April 12.

Video: Blastoff! Soyuz rocket launches 38 satellites on rideshare mission (opens in new tab)

A Soyuz rocket lifts off on the first-ever fully commercial Soyuz mission, on March 22, 2021. (Image credit: GK Launch Services via Roscosmos)

"This is the first time this rocket is painted in a white and blue color scheme instead of the standard gray-orange color combination," Russian space agency Roscosmos said (opens in new tab) in a machine-translated statement, adding the inspiration is the Vostok rocket that sent Gagarin into space in 1961.

Video footage from Baikonur, broadcast by Roscosmos (opens in new tab), shows the Soyuz-2.1a rocket lifting off and disappearing into the clouds despite rainy conditions at the launch site. The launch had been delayed two days due to a detected problem in the upper Fregat stage of the rocket, Space News said (opens in new tab).

Eighteen countries participated in the rideshare. The Fregat upper stage was expected to send the various satellites into three sun-synchronous orbits, GK Launch Services said (opens in new tab), which gives consistent lighting conditions of each satellites' viewpoint of Earth. 

The company confirmed all satellites were deployed on Twitter on Monday (opens in new tab), and said it is "awaiting confirmation from customers about establishing contact with the spacecraft." Each customer will then take over operations of its own spacecraft.

The largest satellite of the bunch was the CAS500-1 remote sensing spacecraft from the Republic of Korea, according to Space News (opens in new tab). Quoting the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, Space News said that satellite will first do six months of testing in orbit before starting high-resolution Earth observations in October.

The various other satellites have mandates such as scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, Earth observations and solar observations, according to GK Launch Services (opens in new tab). Notably, the Italian-led Unisat-7 mission will release six nanosatellites, largely for technology, educational and research purposes.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace