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U.S. Hopes Court Ruling, New Studies Will Break Impasse on MUOS Station

Thousands of protestors rallied March 30 in Niscemi, Italy, in opposition to a ground station for the U.S. Navy's Mobile User Objective System. Credit: Robert Zampino photo

WASHINGTON — U.S. government officials hope an Italian appeals court ruling and results from a pair of health studies, all expected within a month, will help break an impasse that has halted work on a critical U.S. military satellite ground station in Sicily. 

Construction of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) ground station in Niscemi, Italy, was halted in April following months of protests sparked by concerns about harmful electromagnetic radiation that might be emitted from the site. The station is one of four being built for MUOS, a U.S. Navy satellite system intended to serve mobile forces.

U.S. officials say the Sicilian ground station remains on schedule for now, but that every day construction crews are idle will make the deadline for completion more difficult to meet. Crews will need 14 months to complete the project once the work resumes, leaving little room for additional delays given that MUOS is planned to be fully operational by 2015. 

The multibillion-dollar MUOS system consists of four geostationary-orbiting satellites plus one on-orbit spare, and four ground stations, and is designed to provide cellphone-like communications to mobile forces. The Niscemi station is about 60 kilometers inland from the U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily. The other ground stations are located in western Australia, southeast Virginia and Hawaii.   

According to U.S. State Department briefing documents, written in Italian and dated May 17, all MUOS ground stations with the exception of the Niscemi site are operational. All four ground stations, along with associated terminals, must be in service for MUOS to be considered fully operational, said Mark Lewis, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, the satellite’s prime contractor. 

The first of the MUOS satellites was launched in February 2012; the second is expected to follow as early as July 19.

In Sicily, locals have protested the construction of the ground station, claiming the antennas would create dangerous levels of electromagnetic emissions and possibly lead to higher rates of leukemia and other forms of cancer. In response, the Sicilian governor revoked the U.S. Navy’s permission to continue building there.

U.S. State Department and Navy officials point to a series of upcoming events that they believe will help keep the project on time. Key among them is a ruling, expected in early July, from an Italian appeals court that could allow construction on the ground station to resume. U.S. officials are hoping the court will temporarily negate a revocation notice from the Sicilian government that halted construction. The Italian Ministry of Defense appealed the revocation, saying the action strained Italian-U.S. relations. 

The health effects studies, meanwhile, follow up on earlier research conducted by the Navy that seemingly exonerated the ground station but failed to convince thousands of protesters who have campaigned against the project.

The Navy is hoping the first of the new studies, being conducted by the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., will prove more persuasive, according to talking points distributed by the Navy to reporters. The study’s results are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Preliminary findings say that a passerby 200 meters from a cell phone tower, or 1 kilometer from a television broadcast antenna, is exposed to greater electromagnetic-emission levels than at the nearest point in the perimeter fence surrounding the Niscemi ground station. The exposure levels near the cell and TV towers are well below the health limits set by the Italian government, according to the talking points.

Preliminary results from a second study, this one by Italy’s Istituto Superiore di Sanità, or National Institute of Health, are expected within weeks, according to the U.S. State Department. U.S. officials are hopeful that this study, too, will help convince Sicilians that the MUOS station poses no health hazard.

The second satellite in the constellation, MUOS-2, has been delivered by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in preparation for its upcoming launch. Two on-orbit satellites are needed to test out the new MUOS wave form that is expected to bring out the most advanced capabilities of the system.

MUOS-3 is expected to launch sometime during fiscal year 2014, which begins this October.

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