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    France launches new-generation spy satellite
    ABC Online

    A European Ariane rocket has launched a military surveillance satellite, the third in a French-led drive for a European "spy in the sky" independent of the United States.

    The Ariane-5 rocket blasted off from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch site in French Guiana on the north-east coast of South America.

    An hour after lift-off, space officials said the Helios 2A satellite separated from the rocket.

    An additional six microsatellites were also released by the rocket.

    Helios 2A, the first of a new generation of spy satellite launched by France, weighs 4.2 tonnes and was built by an industrial consortium led by EADS-Astrium.

    Speaking from Paris after the launch, France's Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie underlined the importance of spy satellites and called for greater European cooperation in space defence ventures.

    "With Helios, our armed forces can benefit from increased capacity, more precise imagery and more rapid reaction capacity. It's also a new example of the quality of European defence cooperation," she said.

    "Space is a major challenge for the 21st century. France and Europe cannot remain on the margins of this challenge.

    "The status of being a space power has become essential to exist on the world stage."

    Earlier generation Helios 1 satellites launched aboard Ariane rockets in 1995 and 1999 were technically less sophisticated.

    "This satellite is more precise," Lieutenant Colonel Inaky Garcia Brotons of the French Air Force said.

    "The infra-red system permits detection of human activity. It can tell whether a truck convoy is moving or halted, whether a nuclear reactor is operational or not."

    Defence officials say the Helios 2 generation will be capable of operating at night but still could not capture images through clouds.

    The total cost of the program, including a second satellite to be launched in three years is $A3.5 billion with France footing 95 per cent of the financing, the French Defence Ministry says.


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