French Defense Officials Debut Helios 2A Reconnaissance Satellite Images

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French defense officials displayed images from their Helios 2A optical reconnaissance satellite here March 16 as proof of what they say is the satellite’s better-than-expected performance.

Officials said the pictures shown here, including a spectacular angled view of downtown Las Vegas, were not degraded before being exposed, but also were not treated to the kind of enhancement techniques that standard Helios imagery is put through.

Officials declined to show nighttime images from Helios 2A’s infrared imager, saying a trained eye would have been able to glean classified information on the imager’s technical specifications.

Helios 2A, along with the identical Helios 2B satellite slated to launch in late 2008, are France’s second-generation optical reconnaissance system. The satellites’ ground resolution is classified, but is estimated at about 50 centimeters. Belgium and Spain each have purchased a 2.5 percent stake in the program, and Greece recently has agreed to join with a small ownership share. The Helios 2 program is budgeted at slightly more than 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion) including the satellites’ construction and launch, and ground installations.

Two first-generation Helios satellites, with 1-meter optical imaging resolution and no infrared capability, were launched in 1995 and 1999. The first remains operational. The second was scuttled in October when its four batteries failed. Italy has a 14 percent stake in Helios 1, and Spain has 7 percent.

Helios 2 program manager Michel Sayegh said that since Helios 2A’s Dec. 18 launch into a 700-kilometer, near-polar orbit, the satellite’s instruments and platform have been fully tested. A formal hand-over to the French Defense Ministry is expected April 5.

Sayegh made his remarks during presentations on Helios and the coming French Syracuse 3 military telecommunications satellite at the CELAR armaments-electronics center here, operated by the French arms procurement agency, DGA.

The CELAR facility houses 700 people, including 300 engineers, and specializes in electronic-warfare countermeasures and encryption. Its annual budget is 85 million euros.

Sayegh said DGA officials have concluded that the failure of Helios 1B’s batteries was not due to the several years the satellite spent in storage after it was manufactured. He said there was a slight modification to the batteries compared to those on board Helios 1A, which still function, but noted that the same hardware has been working well on the French civilian Spot 5 Earth observation satellite, launched in May 2002.

DGA officials also said the four Essaim electronic -intelligence satellites launched with Helios 2A in December are functioning well in orbit and will begin their planned three years of operations in May.

The Essaim satellites operate as a unit, passing over a given area to provide French defense authorities with samples of electronic and radar communications in a test that could lead to an operational eavesdropping system toward the end of the decade.

Essaim, budgeted at 80 million euros including launch and ground facilities, follows the Cerise and Clementine satellites launched in 1995 and 1999, respectively.

Some French defense officials have criticized the DGA for insisting on a third in-orbit demonstrator program after a decade of initial validation with the previous satellites. DGA officials note that Essaim has greater capacity than its predecessors and will provide some operational data. They say Essaim is designed to maintain French expertise long enough to persuade other European governments to join in an operational eavesdropping effort, which France alone cannot afford.

A single tracking antenna now receives data from an Essaim spacecraft during two 10-minute orbital passes per day. Two other antennas are planned, once the satellites have finished in-orbit testing, to permit three satellites to deliver their data at each pass. The fourth satellite is viewed as an in-orbit spare