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As early as 1978 France proposed an international monitoring agency employing satellites under the auspices of the United Nations. Failing to win support from either the US or the USSR, by 1981 France was studying the feasibility of deploying a national reconnaissance spacecraft called SAMRO and derived in large measures from the SPOT Earth observation satellite. The studies evolved into the present Helios program, whose maiden launch by an Ariane 40 booster was postponed from 1994 to 1995 due to disruption of the Ariane schedule following the launch failure of 24 January 1994 (References 1-7).

The $2 billion project is funded primarily by the French Delegation Generale pour l'Armement (DGA), Helios-1 is also being financially sponsored by Italy and Spain at a level of approximately 14% and 7%, respectively. Responsibility for the overall space system architecture has been delegated to CNES with Matra Marconi serving as the prime contractor. Major subcontractors include Aerospatiale, Alcatel Espace, Alenia, SEP, and Sodern (References 8-10).

Helios has a mass of about 2.5 metric-tons and operates in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 680 km and an inclination of 98 degrees. Outwardly, the spacecraft closely resembles SPOT 4 with a box-like bus and a five-segment solar array capable of generating 2.5 kW of electrical power. A 3-axis stabilization system and precision pointing accuracy supports the primary multi-spectral CCD imaging system with a resolution of one meter. In early 1994 Aerospatiale delivered the principal imaging payload to Matra Marconi, and, by the end of the year, final testing and integration were underway (References 11-12).

The main payload control facility for Helios is at Creil, France, whereas primary data reception sites are located in all three partner countries: Colmar, France; Lecce, Italy; and Maspalomas, Canary Islands (Spain). A tiered encryption scheme restricts images to only one or more of the Helios program states with France having the highest priority and widest data access. Images are also made available to the Western European Union, or possibly in the future to selected civilian customers on a commercial basis (References 13-15).

The launch of Helios 1A on 07 July 1995 was scheduled to be followed by Helios 1B in late 1996 or early 1997. This was a significant change in the original program which envisioned Helios 1B being held in reserve in the case of difficulties with Helios 1A, which has a design lifetime of four years or more. In part, this operational thinking was brought about by the demonstrated utility of space systems during the Persian Gulf War. However, subsequently this ambitious goal was abandoned, and planning for Helios 1B reverted to a scheduled 1999 launch. On 03 December 1999 the 123rd ARIANE launch (Flight 124) placed the HELIOS IB satellite into a polar sunsynchronous orbit using an ARIANE 40 launch vehicle (with no strap-on boosters). This was the 92nd ARIANE 4 launch and the 7th in the ARIANE 40 configuration. Helios IB sent back its first image the very next day, on 4 December 1999 at 13:20 (Paris time), when it passed within view of the image receiving centre at Colmar, north-east France, and the mobile theatre station deployed at Creil French air force base just outside Paris. This first image, a long strip of eastern France, showed that the satellite had been deployed nominally.

Helios-class satellites may also be sold to other nations if France can maintain control of the sale and use of the reconnaissance products (References 16-18).

A pair of Helios 2 spacecraft will be developed for missions beginning in 2001 with proved optical imagers (resolution perhaps down to 0.5 m), new infrared sensors for nightime reconnaissance, and expanded tape recorder capacities for storage of a greater number of photographs (up to 200) between downlink opportunities. During 1994, Germany was wooed to join the Helios 2 programas Spain and then Italy threatened to reduce their contributions. The price for German participation was leadership of the follow-on synthetic aperture radar reconnaissance satellite Horus (formerly known as Osiris) which could be launched as early as 2005. The decision on the Helios 2 and Horus programs was deferred until late 1995, after the French national elections (References 16-32).

Prime contractor :

CNES (centre national détudes spatiales)

Builder team :

Matra Marconi Space Alcatel

User nations :

Co-operation : France (79%) - Italy (14%) - Spain (7%)

First launch :

July 7, 1995 by Ariane 4

Weight :

2,500 kg

Energy :

Solar generator supplying 2.2 kW

Specified useful life :

5 years

Orbit :

Circular, low altitude (around 700 km), sun synchronous

Ground facilities :

Encrypted control and programming of the satellite from France, image reception and processing in dedicated centres of the 3 co-operating countries

Payload :

Panchromatic, high resolution and wide-angle optical instruments, data storage on digital magnetic recorder, transmission to the ground by encrypted telemetry

Ground segment :

Dedicated Helios control center

Two centers in each user nation (a main center and an image telemetry reception center)

Field stations for image exploitation

A theater station for France

Major operational capabilities :

Minimal delay for return to zone (less than 24 hours in general)

Flexible and confidential programming

Programmation, telemetry reception and image exploitation on the field using the Theatre Transportable Station

WEU interoperability :

Possible use of the Helios images at the Western European Union satellite centre in Torrejon, Spain

Planned inventory :

1 operational satellite in orbit since 1995 ; 2nd satellite to be launched at the end of 1999 ; Helios 2 program in progress (upgraded operational capabilities), first launch scheduled in 2003

Typical mission in former Yugoslavia :

High resolution optical images for mission preparation or Battle Damage Assessment (BDA)


1. C. Covault, "Soviets Endorse French Proposal for Space Reconnaissance Agency", Aviation Week and Space Technology, 24 October 1988, p. 23.

2. "France Studies Reconnaissance Version of Spot Spacecraft", Aviation Week and Space Technology, l0 August 1981, p.58.

3. France To Build 'Third Great' Force in Space", Military Space, 14 April 1986, pp. 4-5.

4. France Approves Military Recon and Communications Satellites", Defense Daily, 5 February 1987, p. 196.

5. T. Furniss, "European Spies", Flight International, 18-24 January 1995, pp. 43-44.

6. S. Chenard, "French Satellites in Uniform", Space, September-October 1994, pp. 8-12.

7. P.B. de Selding, "Space Firms Turn to Military Work as Anchor", Space News, 1-7 November 1993.

8. "French Milspace", Military Space, 27 April 1987, p. 8.

9. "France Approves Launch by Ariane of Helios Reconnaissance Satellites", Aviation Week and Space Technology, 4 June 1990, p. 20.

10. P. B. de Selding, "France Steps Up Its Military, Space Activity, Spending", Space News, 2-8 November 1992, p.21.

11. "Aerospatiale Delivers Main Optical Imager for Helios", Space News, 17-23 January 1994, p. 12.

12. C. Covault, "CNES, Matra Accelerate Spacecraft, Ariane 5 Tests", Aviation Week and Space Technology, 5 December 1994, p. 22.

13. P.B. de Selding, "French Firm Outlines Helios' Complex Encryption Plant", Space News, 31 May - 6 June 1993, p. 7.

14. P.B. de Selding, "Joxe: France to Share Helios Images with WEU", Space News, 10-16 June 1991, p. 22

15. P.B. de Selding, "Selling Ultrasharp Images Raises Hackles in France", Space News, 5-11 September 1994, p.4.

16. P.B. de Selding, "Spy Satellites for Sale", Space News, 13-19 March 1995, pp. 1, 36.

17. "Matra Marconi Proposes Expanded Program for Helios Reconnaissance Satellite", Aviation Week and Space Technology, 20 May 1991, p. 63.

18. P.B. de Selding, Gulf War Spurs Call for European Spy Satellites", Space News, 11-17 March 1991, p. 3.

19. P.B. de Selding, French Begin Military Radar Satellite", Space News, 4-10 November 1991, pp. 1, 20.

20. "France Gives DASA Nod for Prime Osiris Role", Space News, 5-11 September 1994, p. 2.

21. C. Lardier, "Matra Veut Rester Maitre De L'Observation", Air & Cosmos, 19 May 1995, p. 38.

22. C. Lardier, "Participation Europeene Pour Helios 2", Air & Cosmos, 20 January 1995, p. 36.

23. C. Lardier, "Decision Imminente A Bonn Sur Les Satellites Militaires", Air & Cosmos, 21 April 1995, p. 39.

24. Reuter, Le Bourget, 13 June 1995.

25. C. Covault, "Munich Summit To Eye Space Recon Issues", Aviation Week and Space Technology, 26 June 1995, p.20.

26. C. Lardier, "L'Espagne Abandonne Helios 2", Air & Cosmos, 30 September 1994, p. 31.

27. "Spain Bows Out of Helios' Successor", Space News, 19-25 September 1994, pp. 1, 20.

28. P.B. de Selding, "Matra, Aerospatiale Lift Helios 2 Veil at Committee Hearing", Space News, 21-27 March 1994, p.11.

29. P.B. de Selding, "Potential Partners Give Helios Follow-on Cool Response", Space News, 28 June - 11 July 1993, p. 5.

30. P.B. de Selding, "Kohl Backs Joint Work On Osiris, Helios 2", Space News, 5-11 December 1994, pp. 4, 21.

31. P.B. de Selding, "About Face: Spain, Italy Join Helios 2 Program", Space News, 16-22 January 1995, pp. .1, 21.

32. P.B. de Selding, Germans Chafe at Helios Tab", Space News, 23-29 January 1995, pp. 3, 21.

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