Ariane rocket to launch French spy satellite

PARIS Mon Dec 7, 2009 3:59pm IST

PARIS Dec 7 (Reuters) - France plans to launch a military spy satellite on Wednesday, the defence ministry said, as Paris boosts spending on its independent surveillance from space despite closer military co-operation with the United States.

This will be the first such launch under President Nicolas Sarkozy who brought France back into NATO's military command earlier this year, following a 40-year partial rift with the military alliance.

The satellite, Helios 2B is slated to blast off on a European Ariane rocket at 1:26 p.m. (1626 GMT) on Wednesday from the European Space Agency launch site in French Guiana.

While cooperating more closely with the United States on military planning, France sees independent access to space intelligence as a strategic priority.

"In an international context marked by uncertainty, France must be able to understand the strategic environment in which it is evolving and to anticipate threats," the defence ministry said in a briefing document.

The satellite would help in preparing missions and assessing threats, as well as drawing up maps of uncharted zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chad and the neighbouring Sudanese region of Darfur.

Manufactured by the space division of Airbus parent EADS EAD.PA, Helios 2B is the second of France's second generation of spy satellites. Its predecessor was launched in 2004.

It was initially planned as a pan-European satellite series to counter U.S. space intelligence domination during the Cold War. However, France's European partners have been less willing to participate financially in the Helios 2 programme.

The 1990s first generation Helios 1 programme attracted contributions totalling 21 percent from Spain and Italy. But France has financed 90 percent of the 2 billion euro ($3 billion) Helios 2 series with Italy, Belgium, Spain and Greece contributing 10 percent. (Reporting by Alexander Miles; editing by David Stamp)