The Quantum Space Race Begins

China has officially kicked off the quantum space race, becoming the first country to launch a satellite designed to test highly secure quantum communications.

The 600kg Micius satellite, named after an ancient Chinese philosopher, was launched from the Gobi desert on 16th August.  According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Xinhua) this heralds the start of a two year mission to help China develop “hack proof quantum communications” based on Quantum Key Distribution (QKD).

The launch is the first part of an ambitious satellite program (Quantum Experiments at Space Scale, or Quess) which President Xi Jinping has announced as a strategic priority of the Chinese government. By 2030 China plans to launch and manage a global network of quantum communications satellites. According to China Daily Micius will kick start a quantum communications market worth $7.5 billion over the next 5 years.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal John Costello, a fellow at Washington DC-based think-tank, New America, looks behind the latest launch. In the article, Costello suggests that China’s investment in the field is driven, in part, by concerns over US cyber capabilities – following the disclosure in 2013 that the US had penetrated deep into Chinese networks.

Costello also notes that US institutions are actively researching how to build powerful quantum computers; theoretically capable of shattering the math-based encryption now used world-wide for secure communication. “The Chinese government is aware that they are growing particularly susceptible to electronic espionage,” Mr. Costello said. However, quantum communication is defensive in nature, he noted, and wouldn’t benefit what the US has identified as China’s state-sponsored hacking program.

Although China has clearly taken the lead, the rest of the world does not stand idle. In fact, several quantum projects have already been developed. Free space Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) was pioneered in the US, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as far back as 2002, where researchers established a 10 km-long link that could be operated both at night and during daylight. Somewhat surprisingly, there seems to have been little further development of this principle in the US. However, it may well be that the QKD in space program has gone into stealth mode. In North America, the torch has been passed to Canada, with an active team at the University of Waterloo.

In Europe, several projects are underway; including the demonstration of a 144 km-long link between two Canary Islands, the longest free space experiment so far. The Chinese satellite will dwarf this as it utilises a satellite in low-earth orbit at an altitude of 500 km, but it is not yet operational.

In fact, Europe clearly intends to remain a major player in the quantum race. A recent experiment suggests that that quantum communications should be possible between the earth and a geostationary satellite, operating at an altitude of roughly 35,000 km.

At ID Quantique, we are following these developments with great interest. ID Quantique was the first company to offer a ground-based commercial QKD system based on optical fibers. We hope that we can build on all these scientific developments and offer a new service based on satellite communications in a few years. The Quantum Space race has only just begun. Stay tuned!

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