A GK Launch Services-brokered Soyuz-2.1a rocket stands on the launchpad at Russia's Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. Liftoff has been rescheduled for March 21 at 2:07 a.m. EDT. Credit: GK Launch Services

This story was updated March 20 at 4:30 p.m. EDT to add a Roscosmos statement about the new March 22 launch date for the mission.

SEOUL, South Korea — The launch of a Soyuz-2.1a rocket carrying a South Korean remote sensing satellite and three dozen smaller satellites was postponed Saturday due to a problem with the rocket’s upper stage, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT, the primary customer for the GK Launch Services-brokered commercial rideshare mission. 

The South Korean ministry said a “Fregat control system problem” had been detected during a last-minute check up of the three-stage rocket, which was scheduled to lift off March 20 from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11:07 a.m. local time (2:07 a.m. EDT) with 38 satellites from 18 countries onboard.

The primary passenger for the mission is the 500-kilogram CAS500-1 remote sensing satellite for the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), South Korea’s space agency. 

The delay was announced less than an hour before the scheduled launch time. 

“The launch will be rescheduled after an examination of the problem’s cause and a round of checkup are conducted,” the ministry said in a statement.

The chief of Roscosmos, the Russian state space corporation, confirmed the delay, saying the mission was postponed until Sunday. “There was a power surge, and we decided not to risk it [the launch],” Dmitry Rogozin told the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik. Rogozin didn’t give further details.

GK Launch Services, a subsidiary of the Russian space agency’s commercial division Glavkosmos, which has arranged the launch, was not immediately available for comment.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the company said: “The launch is postponed. We will get back to you later with details.”

Roscosmos, in a brief post on the English version of its website shortly before the scheduled liftoff, said that Saturday’s launch “has been postponed to a backup date.” It later updated the post to indicate that the launch had been rescheduled for the same time Sunday.

By late Saturday, Roscosmos announced that the launch would not take place until Monday, March 22.

“At the Baikonur cosmodrome on March 20, 2021, a meeting of the commission was held, during which the results of tests of the Soyuz-2.1a space rocket were considered after a technical malfunction revealed this morning,” Roscosmos said in a statement on the Russian-version of its website. “After hearing the reports of the work supervisors, the members of the commission decided to launch the launch on the morning of Monday, March 22, 2021.”

The Fregat upper stage allows the Soyuz-2 rocket to deliver up to 4,800 kilograms of payload mass to a sun-synchronous orbit. 

CAS500-1 and Astroscale’s ELSA-d

South Korea’s CAS500-1 — the first of at least two 500-kilogram-class Compact Advanced Satellite 500 spacecraft KARI plans to launch — is designed operate from a roughly 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit to provide high-resolution color and multispectral imagery of the Earth. 


GK Launch Services graphic via Twitter

Among other passengers awaiting launch onboard the Soyuz-2.1a is Tokyo-based Astroscale’s ELSA-d mission. Short for End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration, a pair of ELSA-d spacecraft will perform the company’s first end-to-end test of key technologies for removing space junk from orbit. Astroscale is counting on the ELSA-d mission to accelerate government policies around the world for addressing orbital debris and drive the business case for related in-orbit services.


Also onboard is the first nanosatellite for Sateliot, a Spanish Internet of Things startup that aims to deploy a constellation of such satellites in low Earth orbit to help terrestrial 5G network operators connect “permanently or occasionally uncovered devices” belonging to enterprise customers. 

Sateliot recently outlined ambitions to generate €236 million ($282 million) in revenue by 2025 with a constellation of up to 100 satellites, connecting devices for applications ranging from environmental monitoring to logistics.

The startup, which tapped U.K.-based Open Cosmos in 2020 to build and operate its constellation, said it has raised a €5 million series A funding round to support this launch and early research and development. It is planning another funding round to deploy 16 more satellites to launch commercial services by 2022-2023.

Other payloads onboard the launch include small satellites for private ventures Axelspace, Hiber, Kepler Communications and Lacuna Space, plus numerous cubesats for universities and research institutions from around the world. 

SpaceNews senior staff writer Jason Rainbow contributed to this story from Florida. 

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...