Solar Storm – SpaceX Warns Starlink Broadband Users of Degraded Service

SpaceX has warned customers of Starlink’s mega constellation of ultrafast broadband satellites, which sit in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), that they may experience “degraded service” as a result of a major geomagnetic solar storm that hit the planet, which last night also caused the northern lights to spread across much of the UK.

The operator currently has 5,935 LEO satellites in orbit around the Earth (altitudes of c.500-600km) and they’re in the process of adding thousands more by the end of 2027. Customers in the UK typically pay from £75 a month for a 30-day term, plus £449 for hardware (currently discounted to £225 or £150 if refurbished) on the ‘Standard’ plan, which promises internet latency times of 25-50ms, downloads of c. 25-100Mbps and uploads of c. 5-10Mbps.

NOTE: At the end of 2023 Starlink’s global network had 2.3 million customers (currently 2.6m) and 42,000 of those were in the UK (up from 13,000 in 2022) – mostly in rural areas.

However, satellites are typically exposed to some of the strongest impacts from solar storms, which means that it’s not uncommon for related services (internet, GPS etc.) to experience some disruption during related events. For example, back in 2022 Starlink lost 40 of their LEO platforms due to a solar storm (here), although that was more related to its impact upon atmospheric drag (i.e. pulling some recently launched satellites back down to earth), rather than direct service deliverability.

Solar storms typically occur when intense solar wind interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere, which is the magnetic field that exists around our planet and helps to protect us from a lot of nasty solar and cosmic particle radiation. But this interaction, which spawns shifting currents and plasmas, can also cause the atmosphere to warm a little and atmospheric density to increase, while also disrupting electronic communications and triggering a beautiful light show (Aurora Borealis / Northern Lights) on the ground.

Last night, one of the largest solar geomagnetic storms in the past few decades erupted from the sun, which registered up to around G5 in intensity (near the top of the scale – an “extreme” event). As a result, even people living in parts of southern England would have been able to see faint lights if they looked up at the night sky just before midnight, which is incredibly rare.

The sun is currently in its Solar maximum phase, which is the regular period of greatest solar activity during the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle. As a result, more storm activity is expected to continue over the weekend (another X5.4 class flare just happened this morning), and there’s always the possibility of an even stronger event to come in the near future.

As a result of this, Starlink’s website is currently carrying a warning notice: “Starlink is currently experiencing degraded service. Our team is investigating.” The boss of SpaceX, Elon Musk, similar warned at around 7am (UK time) today that “[a] major geomagnetic solar storm [is] happening right now. Biggest in a long time. Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far” (here).

The issue of degraded service will vary by location, with a few people reporting a near loss of service and some noting a 30-50% reduction in broadband speeds, although most others may well find that their service is functioning just like normal (complaints remain at a low level). As we say, such activity may continue to be high over the course of this weekend, but so far SpaceX and modern networks on the ground appear to be weathering it well.

Major geomagnetic solar storm happening right now. Biggest in a long time. Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 11, 2024

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