WASHINGTON — Work on a ground station in the southern Italian territory of Sicily for the U.S. Navy’s next-generation mobile communications program has resumed in recent weeks following a six-month delay, according to a service spokesman.

Officials halted construction at the site in Niscemi, Sicily, in April following months of protests sparked by residents’ concerns about harmful electromagnetic radiation that might be emitted from the site. Antenna assembly crews returned to the site Oct. 28, said Steven A. Davis, a spokesman for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

U.S. officials had said crews would need 14 months to complete the project once work resumes, which leaves little margin given that MUOS is planned to be fully operational by 2015. Barring any further delays, the Niscemi site will be completed in time, Davis said in an email Nov. 14. Antennas are expected to be lifted into place in mid-January, he said.

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 smartphone-like communications to mobile forces at rates 10 times faster than the legacy system.

The first of the MUOS satellites was launched in February 2012. The second MUOS satellite launched in July and is currently undergoing on-orbit testing by Lockheed Martin. Mark Lewis, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, said the company is expected to hand over the satellite to the Navy before the end of November.

According to a Navy fact sheet distributed in September, the third MUOS satellite is 94 percent complete and expected to launch in 2014. The fourth satellite is 89 percent complete and the fifth satellite is 76 percent finished. The satellites are expected to provide service through 2025. The program is expected to achieve full operational capability in 2015. 

But the work in Niscemi is key to that success. Program officials have said that MUOS will not be considered fully operational until all four ground stations are completed. Three of those ground stations were finished and formally turned over to the Navy in the past year. The MUOS ground station in Wahiawa, Hawaii, was turned over last December, followed by the Chesapeake, Va., ground station in March; both are now operational. The third ground station, in Geraldton, Australia, was turned over to the Navy in July, leaving only the ground station in Niscemi, about 60 kilometers inland from the U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, to be completed. 

Construction in Niscemi began in 2011. But in the last year, residents opposed to MUOS — many fearing the ground station would increase the rates of cancer and leukemia — have led heavily attended protests, including several large-scale events in September and October. In response, Sicily’s newly elected governor, Rosario Crocetta, revoked the U.S. Navy’s permission to continue building at Niscemi and construction came to a halt in April. The move frustrated Italian government leaders, who feared the delay would strain U.S-Italian relations. The complicated politics led to a series of legal wrangling.

MUOS Timeline

On July 26, those challenges came to a head when an Italian national court ruled that construction at the site could continue after a series of legal challenges. Based on that decision, workers finally returned to the site late last month.

At the same time, U.S. efforts to restart the work were buoyed by the results of a study from Italy’s Istituto Superiore di Sanità, or National Institute of Health. Those studies showed 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 had reached similar conclusions. 

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...