World’s First Quantum Communications Satellite Takes Off

2016-08-16 05:08:51

China successfully launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite in the early hours of Tuesday morning, state news agency Xinhua reported.

A rocket transported the 600-kilogram satellite from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in the Gobi Desert, to outer space at 1:40 a.m. on Tuesday.

“It’s pretty phenomenal that China is the first country that will have achieved that,” Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, told Sixth Tone before the launch. Zeilinger and the Austrian Academy of Sciences are working in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), which scientists hope will lay the foundation for a future “quantum internet” that would allow for much faster and more secure internet communication than is currently available.

Zeilinger said that he pictured the launch of the rocket “much like you see it in Hollywood movies.” Xinhua reported that the rocket created a cloud of thick smoke before “roaring into the dark sky.”

For several years, Zeilinger had tried to secure funding for a similar project from the European Union, but cost and long approval processes proved too prohibitive. One of his former students, Pan Jianwei, a professor at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei and one of China’s leading quantum physicists, proposed the cooperation.

Pan is now the chief scientist of QUESS, and he plans to set up a worldwide network of quantum satellites by 2020, which would allow for absolutely secure transmission of information using entangled photons.

Photons, the basic elementary particles that light is made of, will be entangled on the satellite and then sent to ground stations, where they will later be used to transmit encrypted information over distances of more than 1,000 kilometers.

These entangled photons should remain linked no matter how great the distance between them — at least according to quantum theory. QUESS will prove this quantum entanglement, which was once described by Albert Einstein as “spooky action at a distance” in an experiment. “It should work,” Zeilinger said, explaining that only a handful of scientists doubt that the photons would remain entangled.

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 mission will take about two years, and it is expected to propel China to the forefront of information technology.

“The newly launched satellite marks a transition in China’s role, from a follower in classic information technology development to one of the leaders guiding future IT achievements,” Pan told Xinhua.

(Header image: The quantum communications satellite is launched successfully in Jiuquan, Gansu province, Aug. 16, 2016. Jin Liwang/Xinhua)