This week, an Arizona man going by the Reddit screen name of “Martin,” who is testing SpaceX’s Starlink satellite (dubbed “Dishy McFlatface”), said he lost broadband service for seven hours when the dish overheated. ARS Technica reported the user received an error message via the Starlink app, which read: “Offline: Thermal shutdown.” The dish “overheated” and “Starlink will reconnect after cooling down.”
According to Starlink support, “Dishy will go into thermal shutdown at 122°F and will restart when it reaches 104°F.” Martin decided to help the process along and doused the dish with water from a sprinkler to speed the cool down, which worked temporarily.
“When I stopped the sprinkler, [the dish] heated back up and would cycle back on for a few minutes and go back down for thermal shutdown,” Martin said. “The overheating started that day about 11:30 a.m. and came back for good about 7 p.m. I’m currently headed to a hardware store to get materials to build a solar shade/sail around the dish to see if it doesn’t impact connection and speed.”
Since Martin lives in a hot climate and his Dishy is set up in an area with no shade, he thinks both the sun beating on the dish and heat from the ground contributes to the thermal sensitivity. ARS Technica reported that he’s “waiting for permitting for a ham radio tower” to lift the dish off the ground and keep it cooler.
According to a Reddit post in April, a beta tester in Virginia also experienced a half-hour outage due to overheating on a day where temperatures reached the low 80s. In response to Martin’s report, a third beta user 50 miles south of the Grand Canyon reported thermal shutdowns.
Back in December, engineer Ken Keiter performed a “teardown” of Dishy for Vice and anticipated temperature issues based on the design. He noted that software changes could “make the system more thermally efficient,” but SpaceX may need to make “a significant hardware revision for the commercial launch.” He called it “a really tricky engineering problem with some insanely tight constraints.”
The Starlink beta began in October 2020, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that it would be available to “most of Earth” by the end of the year and the whole planet in 2022. SpaceX is still awaiting permission from the FCC to deploy up to 5 million user terminals throughout the U.S., reported ARS Technica. To date, 500,000 customers have pre-ordered Starlink, but according to Musk, the program will face challenges in densely populated urban areas. However, the rural areas that lack alternate broadband options might be the biggest benefactors of Starlink, according to ARS Technica.
For those beta testing Dishy, the company warns users to expect “brief periods of no connectivity at all” regardless of 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. SpaceX will keep the service in beta “until the network is reliable and great and something we’d be proud of,” she added.