PARIS -- A European rocket roared yesterday into space from a launch pad in South America, placing into orbit a surveillance satellite billed as giving France's military new abilities to spy worldwide.
The unmanned craft lifted off smoothly from a launch center in Kourou, French Guyana, at 1:36 p.m. -- the third and last launch of an Ariane-5 rocket this year, said Arianespace, the commercial arm of the 13-country European Space Agency.
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.
Arianespace said the Helios 2A military satellite, the rocket's main cargo, is to rotate about 435 miles above the Earth, passing over the same part of the Earth at roughly the same local time each day.
"The success of the Helios 2A launch is a great step forward for our space policy," Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie 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.
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. Helios 1A went up in 1995 and still operates.