HELIOS 1 A
THE FIRST EUROPEAN MILITARY OBSERVATION SATELLITE
The military optic observation satellite, Helios 1A, was built at the Matra
Marconi Space facility in Toulouse. There the new satellite was shown to
large official delegations led by the French, Spanish and German Ministers
of Defense. The 2.5 ton satellite is the baby of the first European space
defense program. Next summer at Kourou, Guyana an Ariane 4 rocket will
launch the satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit. The orbital plane of the
satellite will rotate by one degree per day just like the apparent movement
of the sun. Helios 1A, the first European military observation satellite,
can detect 1 m details from its 700 km altitude orbit. So it will be able
to continuously and repeatedly generate detailed images of every point on
the planet. The ground facilities of the system will therefore be able to
provide priceless documents to civilian authorities and the military
During the eighties, it was decided to set up a space defense observation
system commensurate with France's ambitions. The scheme was prompted by the
lessons learnt from the Iran-Iraq war, from the Afghan conflict as well as
by the need to be more fully apprised of the Warsaw pact countries'
potential. When the Spot satellite was launched for the first time, it
confirmed the value of satellite images and showed that they could be
exploited for military purposes. So the first European space defense
program, the Helios 1 program, was set into motion.
A top priority defense program
In the early nineties, the upheavals incurred by a new geo-strategical
setup proved how important space reconnaissance was. This became even
clearer with the Persian Gulf war when countries with satellite observation
systems proved the supremacy of their intelligence systems. France was
instrumental in furthering the cause by providing Spot satellite images. It
became clear that an independent satellite observation system with
performance-levels adapted to the prerequisites of modern defense systems
The Helios 1 program has been allocated a 14 billion FrF budget. Besides
France, its development is promoted 14 and 7% by Italy and Spain,
respectively. Since the Gulf War the Helios 1 program has been given top
priority in the 1994 White Paper on defense. According the 1995-2000
five-year schedule, 4% of the Defense Ministry's equipment costs will go to
the space industry, i.e. 4 billion FrF per year compared to 1 billion
francs in 1987.
Helios 1A and 1B for now, Helios 2 for the year 2000
Construction on Helios 1A began in February 1993. Next May or June, an
Ariane 4 rocket is slated to launch Helios 1 into a sun-synchronous orbit
at a 800 km altitude. The satellite will only become operational three
months later. Meanwhile construction began on a second Helios satellite,
Helios 1B, in February 1994, and is slated to be finished by the close of
1996. Helios 1B could be used as an emergency satellite in case Helios 1A
breaks down. Helios 1A is slated to last four to five years. In other
words, if everything goes as planned, Helios 1A should be functional until
the year 2000 or even 2001 in order to link up with Helios 2A. In April
1994, Francois Leotard, the Minister of Defense, made the decision to start
work on defining Helios 2A.
1500 engineers worked on the Helios 1 program, headed by the DGA1 and
project engineered by the CNES2. To be successfully carried out in the
current economic environment, the program has sought to improve gains made
by existing programs and exploit the common ventures and dualities between
civilian and military programs.
Helios 1 made profitable use of the civilian Spot satellite program. Indeed
Helios 1 is a derived product with much higher performance-levels. Thanks
to this approach, one billion francs were saved by eliminating the need for
preliminary studies. The general architecture of the two systems is
extremely similar. Helios 1 and Spot will be using the same platform
(taking care of piloting, power supply and propulsion) and the same
magnetic recorders which can store several hundred images. Both satellites
will be controlled from orbitographic station-keeping centers with a shared
A highly efficient optical instrument
The Helios system includes an orbiting satellite and ground facilities.
Helios, a state-of-the-art technological gem, is a remarkable, highly
efficient image-shooting tool built by Aerospatiale. Its swivel system can
record observations at an oblique angle and its star sensor can fine-tune
space positioning. The image-shooting tool, considered as the most
efficient built-in optical instrument ever made in Europe, means Helios can
detect one meter details from its 700 km high orbit. The American Landsat
satellite only has an 80 m resolution while Spot 4 offers a 10 m
The swivel system which can be programmed at will uses momentum wheels so
the satellite can aim at areas located some 400 km from the area it is
flying over. Helios also can cross-image by just rotating one mirror. With
its swivel system and mirror rotation, Helios is more readily available for
All the satellites belonging to the Spot family have infra-red sensors
which can detect the planet's heat and indicate the satellite's position in
relation to the earth at all times. Unfortunately weather variations cause
the planet's heat to fluctuate, so measurement accuracy never exceeds 3 to
5 hundredths of a degree. So Helios was equipped with star sensors,
somewhat like video cameras that can detect reference stars. A prototype of
the system has proved trustworthy on the Russian Granat satellite and
should be installed on a new satellite called Envisat.
European military space is slowly getting organized
The ground facilities used by the armies of the three countries are
organized around the CPHF3 located near Paris. Besides image requests from
the French authorities, the CPHF also receives requests from the CPHI4 near
Rome and from the CPHE5 near Madrid. The CPHF also draws up daily satellite
programs that it then transmits to the Orbitograhpical Station-Keeping
Center (CMP6) every day so that the work schedule can be loaded onto
Helios. The CMP has been set up at the CNES grounds in Toulouse where it
controls the satellite with remote controlled stations located at Aussaguel
near Toulouse, at Kourou in Guyana and on the Kerguelen islands.
Once the work schedule has been completed, the images are recorded on board
the satellite and transmitted during each passage over the image receiving
centers located near Colmar (France), Lecce (Italy) and Maspalomas (Spain).
The different Helios centers in each country then receive the data they
will proceed to exploit.
European military space seems to be slowly organizing around this new
family of satellites. Engineers are already working on the design of a
Helios 2 with greater image resolution and an increased image-shooting
capacity. Helios 2 will also be equipped with a new instrument which can
record findings at night and detect activity at the sites under
Contact - Matra Marconi Space - Tel. 126.96.36.199. Fax. 188.8.131.52.
DGA, Delegation Generale pour l'Armement, general weapons division.
CNES, Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, national space research
CPHF, Centre Principal Helios Francais, main French Helios center.
CPHI, Centre Principal Helios Italien, main Italian Helios center.
CPHE, Centre Principal Helios Espagnol, main Spanish Helios center.
CMP Centre de Maintien a Poste.