France Begins Work on New Reconnaissance System

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LE BOURGET, France — Astrium Satellites will build France’s next-generation optical and infrared reconnaissance satellite system, to be ready for launch in 2014-2015, under a preliminary contract valued at $92 million that will assure uninterrupted surveillance capability when the current Helios-2 satellite system is ready for retirement, Astrium and French Defense Ministry officials said June 15 and 16.

The second and final Helios 2 satellite, Helios 2B, is scheduled for launch into polar low Earth orbit late this year aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. The satellite has a nominal service life of five years and while it is expected to last longer than that, French government officials have said they want the next-generation optical system in orbit by 2014-2015.

Under a contract with the French space agency, CNES, which will use financing provided by the French arms procurement agency, DGA, Astrium Satellites will design what is being called the Optical Space Component to follow Helios 2B. A design contract valued at 66 million euros ($92 million) was announced here June 15 at the Paris air show. That figure includes 17.6 million euros in funding from France’s economic recovery package, which has set aside 2.4 billion euros in defense spending as a way of coaxing the French economy out of recession.

The French Defense Ministry said the economic recovery package will permit a 10 percent increase this year in France’s defense equipment spending budget.

The post-Helios 2 satellites will bear strong resemblance to the civil-military Pleiades satellites to be launched in 2010 and 2011, but will have a sharper ground resolution. The satellites will have a 10-year orbit life and greater on-orbit flexibility than the current Helios spacecraft.

Helios 1A, launched in 1995, remains operational alongside the higher-precision Helios 2A, launched in December 2004. Helios 1B, launched in 1999, failed in orbit in 2005.

France is one of six nations — the others are Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain — trying to coordinate their long-term programs in military space-based surveillance in a program called MUSIS, or Multinational Space-based Imaging System. French officials say they continue to work toward the goal of combining future space-based reconnaissance into a network that permits each nation to access the others’ optical and radar satellites. But because of the replacement deadline for Helios 2B, they said, they cannot wait for the MUSIS program to assign roles and responsibilities for each participating nation before moving forward on the post-Helios system.