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2016-08-15 10:18:34

China is set to launch the world’s first quantum communications satellite into outer space this month, laying the foundation for a future “quantum internet” that would allow for much faster and more secure internet communication than is currently the case.

“It’s pretty phenomenal that China is the first country that will have achieved that,” said Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which is collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the project — or the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) project.

Pan Jianwei, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China and the chief scientist on the project, studied under Zeilinger at the University of Vienna, and proposed the cooperation several years ago. Previously, Zeilinger had tried to secure funding from the European Union, but the cost of the project and the long approval process proved too prohibitive.  

Zhu Zhencai, chief designer of the satellite, confirmed over the weekend that the satellite has been loaded onto the carrier rocket, and that several tests and inspections have been completed. An exact date for the launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert has not been announced. Once in space, the satellite will conduct several major experiments over the next two years. 

Chinese scientists have said that if QUESS is a success, they will go on to set up a worldwide network of quantum satellites by 2020.

China’s 600-kilogram quantum satellite contains a crystal that produces entangled photons, Shanghai, May 25, 2016. Cai Yang/Xinhua

China’s 600-kilogram quantum satellite contains a crystal that produces entangled photons, Shanghai, May 25, 2016. Cai Yang/Xinhua

As part of the project, a crystal on the satellite will entangle photons, the basic elementary particles that light is made of, and then send them to ground stations in Beijing and Vienna, Pan told China’s state news agency Xinhua.

Quantum theory predicts that no matter how far the distance between these entangled photons, their quantum state remains linked – QUESS will prove this in an experiment. “It should work,” Zeilinger said, explaining that only a handful of scientists doubt that the photons would remain entangled. 

In the 1930’s, Albert Einstein described quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” 

The satellite will also send encrypted information through entangled photons. Any tinkering with one of the photons would lead to the collapse of their hypersensitive quantum state, making it impossible for anybody to access or decrypt the information the photons carry.

“We will send messages between Beijing and Vienna that are entirely secure — nobody, no matter what tricks they use, can eavesdrop,” Zeilinger told Sixth Tone.

The rocket weighs about 600 kilograms, and media reports estimate that entire project will cost about $100 million. “I don’t think that will be enough,” said Zeilinger.

(Header image: A CCTV-13 broadcast shows the quantum satellite in a computer-generated animation. VCG)