Starlink dishes go into “thermal shutdown” once they hit 122° Fahrenheit
A Starlink beta user in Arizona said he lost internet service for more than seven hours yesterday when the satellite dish overheated, demonstrating one of the downsides of SpaceX’s broadband service. When the user’s internet service was interrupted, the Starlink app provided an error message stating “Offline: Thermal shutdown”. The dish “has overheated” and “Starlink will reconnect after cooling” indicates the error message.
The user, named Martin, posted a screenshot of the error message to Reddit. He contacted Starlink Support, who told him, “Dishy will go into thermal shutdown at 122F and restart when it reaches 104F.” Martin decided to give the dish a little water to cool it down. He pointed a sprinkler at Dishy, and once it cooled down enough to relight, “I immediately heard YouTube resume playing,” he wrote yesterday.
But the Internet’s restoration has been short-lived, Martin told Ars in a conversation today.
“The fix was temporary,” he told us. “When I stopped the sprinkler, [the dish] warmed up and turned back on for a few minutes and then went back down for a thermal shutdown. The overheating started that day around 11:30 am and returned definitively around 7 pm. . . I’m currently heading to a hardware store to get materials to build a sun shade / veil around the dish to see if it doesn’t impact connection and speed. ”
Martin uses the ground behind his house to set up his dish because it is the only place without obstruction. But there is “no shade to speak of,” he wrote in the Reddit comment thread.
Thermal shutdowns affect other users
Officially, SpaceX has stated that “Dishy McFlatface” is certified to operate from 22 ° below zero up to 104 ° Fahrenheit. Temperatures reached around 120 degrees yesterday in the town of Martin in Topock, near Arizona’s border with California, he said. Although Dishy does not go into thermal shutdown until it reaches 122 °, the dish can obviously get hotter than the air temperature.
“I think the radiant heat from the ground effectively cooks the bottom of the dish, [while] the top of the dish is baked by the sun, ”Martin told Ars. In addition to the shade he is building, Martin said he was “waiting for the permit for a HAM radio tower” that would lift the dish off the ground to help keep it cool enough to operate.
Martin said he had also had very short, multi-day outages since last week, but service returned before he had time to confirm if they were caused by the heat. SpaceX told users to expect periodic outages during beta, so Martin’s previous outages could have been due to heat or satellite availability.
Another user in Virginia suffered a half-hour outage due to overheating one day with temperatures below 80, according to a Reddit post two months ago.
Martin’s post prompted a response from a beta user who also reported thermal shutdowns. “You are not the only one. My Starlink is located 80 km south of the Grand Canyon in a remote area,” one person wrote yesterday. “It was turned off and on too. It stopped today an hour after the recovery period, but stopped again while [of] ~ 12:30 p.m. The last temperature reported to my weather station was 103 degrees. ”
The 122 ° F shutdown temperature was mentioned three weeks ago in a Reddit article by a user who had also received the figure from Starlink Support. “‘That’s it??’ was my thought. On a 90 degree day, the roof of my house can be about 125 degrees, “this user wrote.
“Are you sure it wasn’t Celsius?” asked another. (122 ° C converts to 251.6 ° F)
Like Martin, other Starlink users may need to find creative ways to keep their dishes cool as the summer months arrive.
Dishy’s heat management
As we wrote in December, a teardown of Dishy McFlatface showed some of its heat management components, including a metallic shield studded with blue dots made of thermally conductive material that conducts heat away from the PCB to the shield.
Ken Keiter, the engineer who performed the teardown, was interviewed by the Motherboard section of Vice for a story on the Arizona resident today:
Keiter told Motherboard that while reasonable consideration was given to heat dissipation in Dishy’s design, he could see the potential for problems.
The phased array assembly consists of a PCBA (printed circuit board assembly) adhered to an aluminum backplate that serves multiple purposes – acting as an RF shield, providing structural rigidity, and most importantly, acting as a thermal mass. radiative (heat sink) for the components on the PCBA, ”Keiter said.
Heat is channeled from the printed circuit board to the aluminum backplate using a foam-like thermal interface material (TIM). The backplate itself resides in a weatherproof cavity containing a small amount of air. As that backplate heats up, the air around it heats up as well, transferring thermal energy through the plastic casing to the outside environment, Keiter said.
“Here’s the problem: At one point, the combined thermal energy absorbed by Dishy’s face and discharged from the components into the backplate, the air around it, and the enclosure exceeds the amount that is dissipated in the backplate. ‘external environment,’ he said. Noted.
Keiter said the software changes could “make the system more thermally efficient,” but that SpaceX may need to perform “a major hardware overhaul for commercial launch.” He called it a “really delicate engineering problem with incredibly tight constraints.”
We contacted SpaceX today and will update this article if we get a response.
SpaceX seeks stability before exiting beta
Starlink’s public beta began in October 2020, and it’s still unclear when exactly it will hit the market. But the service could arrive in a few months, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said Starlink will be available for “most of Earth” by the end of 2021 and the whole planet by the year. next. Nonetheless, SpaceX expects to have a limited number of slots in each geographic region due to capacity constraints.
SpaceX is seeking approval from the Federal Communications Commission to deploy up to 5 million user terminals in the United States. Over 500,000 people have ordered Starlink, and Musk said he expects all of those users to get service. But he also said SpaceX would face “a bigger challenge when we get into the multi-million user range.” The greatest limitation would be in densely populated urban areas; rural users would have a better chance of obtaining the service.
As previously reported, Starlink warns beta users to expect “brief periods of no connectivity at all” even if they do not experience thermal shutdowns. “We still have a lot of work to do to make the network reliable,” SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in April. “We still have drops, not necessarily just because of the position of the satellites in the sky.” SpaceX will keep the service in beta “until the network is reliable and great and something we’d be proud of,” Shotwell said.
The Verge reviewed Starlink last month and found frustrating reliability issues. Like the equally over-exaggerated 5G mmWave, Starlink is remarkably delicate. Even a single tree blocking the antenna’s line of sight to the horizon will degrade and interrupt your Starlink signal, ”The Verge wrote.
Starlink is only part of the solution
The service will surely become more stable as SpaceX moves it from beta to general availability, as Shotwell promised. Even in beta, Starlink provides much-needed connectivity for people who have no other options. If SpaceX brings reliable broadband to a few million users, it would be a success, but there could be tens of millions of Americans without broadband access. Tens of millions more have to pay what the cable company demands because there is no competition where they live.
A widespread deployment of fiber to the home would make a bigger difference to more Internet users than Starlink. President Joe Biden has pledged to lower prices and roll out “future-proof” broadband to all Americans, but he has already scaled back his plan in the face of opposition from Republicans and historical ISPs. AT&T lobbied nationwide fiber and municipal grid funding, and AT&T CEO John Stankey expressed confidence last week that Congress would steer legislation in the direction favored AT&T.
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