Starlink User Dish Uses Processor Cores Often Found In Entry Level Smartphones

This is not investment advice. The author has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. WCCF TECH INC has a disclosure and ethics policy.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s (SpaceX) Starlink user terminal underwent a fresh teardown earlier this month. This teardown was conducted by researchers working in Belgium's KU Leven University, and their investigation has revealed that not only is SpaceX continuously making hardware upgrades to the dish but that the terminal uses a processor that is commonly used in smartphones.

Starlink Dish Uses Quad-Core Processor Equipped With Arm's Cortex A53 Cores Discover Researchers

The teardown, which was conducted earlier this month, is not the first time folks have taken apart the Starlink terminal to get a sense of how it works. One such teardown, conducted by Kenneth Keiter late last year, revealed the terminal's innards. However, like most teardowns at the time, it focused only on the hardware side of things, limiting its ability to extract information bout the dish's key performance specifications.

Viasat Quotes NASA To Try To Place Starlink Under Lengthy FCC Review

The teardown by KU researchers takes the dish apart and peaks inside the firmware to understand how the dish starts up and loads its software. As part of this investigation, the team also discovered important details about the Starlink user dish's application processor and onboard memory.

It revealed that the processor use 4 GB of embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC) memory for loading up the firmware after bootup. By accessing the contents of this eMMC independently from the processor, the researchers determined the details for the terminal's application processor. Additionally, they also found a chip dubbed as a 'secure element' in the tech community, which is also present on Apple's iPhones and is a crucial part of the smartphone's security infrastructure as it contains code necessary for secure biometric validation.

An excerpt from KU's investigation outlining the Starlink user terminal's processor. Image: COSIC Research Group, KU Levin

The terminal uses a quad-core Cortex A53 processor for managing data and connecting with the orbiting Starlink satellites. Cortex A53 is a low-power computing core designed by British design house Arm Ltd. launched in 2012. It is designed to be used both as a standalone core or used together with the higher-power Cortex A57. Smartphone processors generally pair such cores in a big.LITTLE configuration, with the big cores consuming more power and being responsible for performance-intensive operations and the LITTLE cores concerning themselves with low power processes.

Moving towards the secure element, the researchers are unsure about its function, but they believe that SpaceX can use details stored inside this chip to verify and authenticate the user terminal.

The researchers also revealed that not only does the terminal stop its boot process if the word 'falcon' is entered during the process, but that SpaceX has also made some changes to the internal components.

Starlink Ties Rivals In Delicious Knots Amidst Estimated 156 Million Pounds Worth Of Launches

These, as described by them, are:

It appears that there a few hardware revisions of the UT out there by now, certain parts of the teardown process can differ depending on the revision, something we learned the hard way. One of the aforementioned teardown videos shows the Ethernet and motor control cables to be detached from the main board before the white plastic cover is removed. On our UT, a tug on the motor control cables pulled the entire connector from the PCB; luckily it appears we can repair the damage. In other words, do not pull on those cables but first remove the back plastic cover, for those of you in the same boat: JST BM05B-ZESS-TBT.

SpaceX is already designing second-generation user terminals. Its chief executive officer Mr. Elon Musk is hopeful that his company will bring down the terminal price to $250 from the $499 it currently charges. In order to boost early-stage adoption, Starlink is heavily subsidizing the terminals, and it should continue to do so until the internet service archives sufficient market penetration.