PARIS — The French-led Helios 2B optical and infrared reconnaissance satellite launched Dec. 18, 2009, aboard an Ariane 5 GS rocket has successfully passed initial in-orbit checkout and delivered its first test images. Program managers expect the satellite will be put into full operations in March.
The 4,200-kilogram Helios 2B, an identical copy of the Helios 2A satellite launched in December 2004, will permit France and its junior partners in the program — Italy, Spain, Belgium and Greece, each with a 2.5 percent ownership stake — to double the amount and frequency of the imagery they take down from the Helios 2 system.
Italy and Germany have signed separate image-exchange agreements with France for access to Helios 2 in return for giving France access to the Italian COSMO-Skymed and German SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance spacecraft. Three of the four COSMO-Skymed satellites are in orbit, with the fourth set for launch in 2010. All five SAR-Lupe spacecraft are operational.
Helios 1A, launched in 1995 with a less-precise optical imager, remains fully operational and will not be placed into a graveyard orbit before 2011 or 2012, according to Pascal Fintz, Helios 2 program manager at the French arms procurement directorate, DGA. Until then, it will be used mainly for map-making functions. Helios 1B, launched in 1999, failed after five years in orbit.
Helios 2B will be placed about 180 degrees distant from Helios 2A in the 700-kilometer, near-polar low Earth orbit used by both satellites.
French defense authorities have classified the ground resolution of the Helios spacecraft, but Helios 1 is able to detect objects of about 1 meter in diameter, while Helios 2’s ground resolution is about 35 centimeters, according to officials knowledgeable about the program.
The two-satellite Helios 2 system cost about 2 billion euros ($2.9 billion) over 10 years, including the construction and launch of the two satellites and a dedicated ground segment with Helios 2 image-reception stations in France, Belgium and Greece, and a control center in France.
The Italian and Spanish Helios ground network was part of the budget of the Helios 1 program, in which the two nations own 14 percent and 7 percent, respectively, and is not included in the Helios 2 costs. Germany’s Helios 2 ground segment is also not included, but is part of the Helios 2-SAR Lupe exchange agreement.
French defense officials said Helios 2’s costs are broken down as follows: 48 percent for the satellites’ construction, 18 percent for system design, 15 percent for the two launches, 13 percent for the French, Belgian and Greek Helios 2 ground networks, 4 percent for Helios 2 satellite contract management at the French space agency, CNES, and 2 percent for the Helios 2 control center.
The Helios satellites are programmed daily during routine operations. Orders are collected at the French Helios mission center in Creil, which receives encrypted orders from the Italian center in Pratica di Mare, near Rome; the Spanish center in Torrejon; and the Belgian center in Brussels.
Germany’s Helios 2 programming capability, located in Getzdorf, is scheduled to enter operations in January. The Greek Helios tasking center, in Tanagra, near Athens, is scheduled to be operational in mid-2010.
The Creil center collates the daily order and sends it to the Helios 2 control facility, located at CNES’s Toulouse site. CNES then converts the orders into uplink commands that are delivered to the spacecraft via Earth stations at Aussaguel, at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, and at the Kerguelen Islands. Once taken, the images are encrypted using each nation’s proprietary code, or using a common Helios code in cases where images are ordered on behalf of multiple Helios member nations.
Helios 2A was launched aboard the same GS version of Ariane 5, with a storable-propellant upper stage, which orbited Helios 2A in 2004. That launch carried with it six small satellites, including the four French Essaim electronics-intelligence spacecraft.
To avoid having to perform a fresh series of studies of launcher compatibility, Helios 2B program managers decided to mimic the mass of six minisatellites by adding dead weight under the Ariane 5 GS fairing. French officials said they were unable to find compatible co-passengers for this launch despite the ample space and power available on the Ariane 5 vehicle. The Helios 2B launch used the last model of the GS variant. Launch services provider Arianespace of Evry, France, has decided to focus on a single product line with the more-powerful ECA version. The Helios 2 satellites were built by Astrium Satellites, which also built the Helios 2 wide-field imager. Thales Alenia Space built the 1,124-kilogram high-resolution imager and also provided the infrared system. Both were working under contract to CNES, which was acting on behalf of DGA. CNES is also managing Helios 2B placement into final orbital position, and its planned five years of operations.
The Dec. 18 launch was the seventh Ariane 5 liftoff of the year for launch-services provider Arianespace, a record for a calendar year. It was the 35th consecutive success for the Ariane 5 rocket.