MUOS-2 Launched Successfully amid Ground System Uncertainty

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy successfully launched the second satellite in its next-generation mobile communications program July 19 but uncertainty continues to surround the status of a ground station for the system across the ocean in Italy.

The multibillion-dollar Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) ultimately will consist of four geostationary-orbiting satellites plus one on-orbit spare, and four ground stations. Built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif, the MUOS constellation is designed to provide cellphone-like communications to mobile forces and do so at rates 10 times faster than the legacy system.

The MUOS-2 satellite was successfully launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Upper level winds delayed liftoff until 9 a.m. EDT. By 9:30 a.m., the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage had completed two of three scheduled burns. The final burn, which deployed MUOS-2 into a geostationary transfer orbit, occurred shortly after 12 p.m. EDT. 

The satellite is expected to take eight days to maneuver into its geostationary orbit some 36,000 kilometers above the equator, Capt. Paul Ghyzel, the Navy’s MUOS program manager, said in a prelaunch conference call with reporters July 15. The Navy expects to declare MUOS-2 operational after a six-month check-out period. 

The satellite is equipped with a UHF-band narrowband payload to provide links to ships at sea and to mobile ground forces operating in hard-to-reach areas such as beneath dense forest canopies and a wideband payload to provide cell-phone like abilities

Each satellite covers about one-third of the Earth’s surface, but Ghyzel said the specific area of service for MUOS-2 has not yet been determined.

Weighing more than 6,800 kilograms, MUOS-2 is the heaviest satellite launched aboard an Atlas 5, said Jim Sponnick, United Launch Alliance’s vice president of Atlas and Delta programs.

The first of the MUOS satellites was launched in February 2012. 

The third MUOS satellite is expected to launch in 2014 and the program is expected to achieve full operational capability in 2015. The satellites are expected to provide service through 2025.

The MUOS-2 launch came as the program faces decisions in Italy whether construction of a ground station in Niscemi, Sicily, can resume. Work on the site was halted in April following months of protests sparked by concerns about harmful electromagnetic radiation that might be emitted from the site.  

U.S. officials were expecting a decision from an Italian appeals court that would temporarily negate a revocation notice from the Sicilian government that halted construction, allowing work to resume. The Italian Ministry of Defense appealed the revocation, saying the action strained Italian-U.S. relations. 

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

Italian media outlets have reported the court, known as the Tribunali Amministrativi Regionali (TAR), denied the injunction, which would be a setback for the Navy. Both the U.S. Embassy in Italy and the Italian embassy here declined to comment.

“We are not going to comment on an alleged TAR decision on the basis of media reports,” the U.S. Embassy in Italy said in a statement July 9.

U.S. officials also have been awaiting the results of a study from Italy’s Istituto Superiore di Sanità, or National Institute of Health, that they hope will show that the ground station’s antennas would not create dangerous levels of electromagnetic emissions or lead to higher rates of leukemia and other forms of cancer for those living and working in the vicinity. Studies performed by U.S.-based scientists have reached similar conclusions. 

Several Italian media reported that the study affirmed the U.S. Navy’s position that the antennas’ emissions were within Italy’s prescribed limits.