Ariane rocket launches French spy satellite
A European Ariane rocket launched a military surveillance satellite on Saturday, 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 at 1:26 p.m. (1126 EST) from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch site in French Guiana on the northeast 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, weighed 4.2 tons and was built by an industrial consortium led by EADS-Astrium.
Speaking from Paris after the launch, France's Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie underlined the importance of spy satellites and called for greater European cooperation in space defense 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 defense cooperation."
"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," she added.
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 told Reuters before the launch.
"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," he said.
Defense officials said the Helios 2 generation would 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 was 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion), with France footing 95 percent of the financing, the French Defense Ministry said.