France Launches Spy Satellite

A European rocket roared into space from a pad in South America on Saturday, placing into orbit a surveillance satellite (search) billed as giving France's military new abilities to spy worldwide.

The unmanned craft lifted off smoothly from a launch center in Kourou, French Guiana, at 1:36 p.m. — the third and last launch of an Ariane-5 (search) rocket this year, Arianespace said.

The satellite and six smaller scientific ones were placed into orbit about an hour after liftoff. It was the first time in 11 years that an Ariane rocket carried as many as seven satellites on a single launch.

The Helios 2A (search) military satellite, the rocket's main cargo, is to rotate in sun-synchronous orbit around 435 miles above the Earth, Arianespace said.

"The success of the Helios 2A launch is a great step forward for our space policy," Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie (search) said at Ecole Militaire. "Mastering space is an imperative for tomorrow," she said, calling for greater space cooperation in Europe.

The French military will "benefit from additional capabilities, more precise images and faster reaction speed," she said at a screening room at the Paris academy.

Among expected functions, the satellite is to monitor possible weapons proliferation, prepare and evaluate military operations and digitally map terrain for cruise missile guidance, the French Defense Ministry said in a statement Friday.

Helios 2A, weighing 4.6 tons, is said to be able to spot objects as small as a textbook anywhere on Earth. Equipped with infrared sensors, it is expected to allow France's military to gather information at night from space for the first time.

Among its predecessors, Helios 1B, which was launched in 1999, suffered a power problem and the military let it disintegrate in the upper layers of the atmosphere two months ago. The first satellite in the series, Helios 1A, went up in 1995 and is still operating.

Also in the payload Saturday was the Parasol satellite, which is to help study the effect of cloud cover and aerosols on global warming and the greenhouse effect, believed to occur when carbon dioxide emissions trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere.

Parasol is part of a French-American space observation mission involving six satellites that can study the world's atmosphere and help give a complete idea of how human activity affects the environment.

The launch marks the 165th Ariane mission since the European launcher first began operating in 1979. Arianespace is the commercial arm of the 13-country European Space Agency.