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Helios 2 is a military observation system capable of imaging any point on the globe. Its imagery is used by government and military command to accomplish a broad range of missions, from enforcing disarmament treaties to planning and executing military operations or evacuating nationals. The Helios 2 system consists of two satellites orbiting Earth at an altitude of 700 km. Each satellite is flying two imaging instruments: a high-resolution instrument operating in the visible and infrared, and a medium-resolution instrument operating only in the visible range. Since the beginning of the programme in 1995, two generations of satellites have been launched, Helios 1A and 1B being phased out and replaced by Helios 2A and 2B from 2004 onwards. This second generation brought a number of technical improvements such as better resolution, day-night imaging (thanks to the infrared imager) and quicker tasking.
Launched by France through its defence procurement agency DGA, the Helios programme today has 5 partners: France, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Spain. CNES has delegated oversight responsibility for the space component and overall system architecture, while DGA exercises overall oversight responsibility. The high-resolution imaging instrument was built by Thales Alenia Space and the ‘wide-field’ instrument by Airbus Defence & Space (ex-Astrium). The design lifetime of the Helios satellites is 5 years, but Helios 2A is still operational after 9 years.