On Tuesday, August 16th, China launched Micius, the world’s first quantum satellite from the heart of the Gobi Desert. According to Nicolas Gisin, a professor and quantum physicist from the University of Geneva, “There’s been a race to produce a quantum satellite…[Micius] shows again China’s ability to commit to large and ambitious projects and to realize them,” (1). In March, China released a five-year economic development plan with quantum technology as its top strategic focus. While it is unknown exactly how much was put towards the Micius project, Beijing disclosed that $10.1 billion was put towards “basic research”, including quantum physics, in 2015. To put that in perspective, U.S. government funding for quantum physics is around $200 million a year.
The project is being headed by quantum physicist Pan Jianwei and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Over the past decade, Mr. Pan has been working closely with physicists and labs all around the world in order to acquire the most comprehensive research possible. He has been working most directly with his former Ph.D. adviser Anton Zeilinger, a physicist from the University of Vienna. As a result, Vienna will be the recipient of the quantum cryptographic key that Beijing shoots into space in order to test the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), which is another name for Micius. It is important to note that photons (quantum particles) have been used before relay information over short distances on earth. However, sending encryptions through space will open up a global scale of communication and allow messages to be sent across continents.
So what makes the launch of Micius so remarkable? The goal of the satellite (which weighs 1400-lbs and orbits the earth at an altitude of 300 miles) is to expand the range of unhackable communication through quantum encryption. Quantum encryption is an advanced form of cryptography because information encoded in a quantum particle is destroyed as soon as it is measured. Cryptography itself is the idea of encrypting a message so that only an encryption key, often a numbers pad, can decrypt the content. Quantum encryption uses a method called “entanglement” to make the process of decryption even more complex. Instead of using numbers, for example, quantum entanglement “fuses” two particles into complementary states that need one another in order to function.
Micius generates entangled particles by shooting a laser beam through a specially designed crystal towards two stations on Earth (sender and recipient), in this case located in Beijing and Vienna, respectively. Even though Micius “splits” these photons up and sends them to two locations, the laws of quantum communication state that they will remain entangled. So, physicists at both locations will be able to access these entangled systems that now mirror each other. If a third-party particle is detected, the quantum state of the two entangled particles collapses and is no longer available. This is what makes quantum communications virtually unhackable. If anyone or anything apart from the two sources of the message tries to penetrate it, the message vanishes without a trace. In simpler terms, Gregoir Ribordy, a quantum physicist who founded Geneva-based firm ID Quantique, compared it to writing a message on a soap bubble. He said “If someone tries to intercept it when it’s being transmitted, by touching it, they make it burst,” (1).
In today’s world of perpetual conflict, countries are striving to keep highly sensitive information classified at all costs. Advanced technology has unfortunately put us in danger of having such information exposed at the touch of a button. This complication is the exact reason why advancements such as quantum communication satellites are central to intelligence in the future. With China taking the first true step towards quantum teleportation of information, it opens the door for the rest of the world to have a more secure platform to relay information. If Micius turns out to be a success, countries across the globe will be able to efficiently formulate plans concerning global conflicts or innovations. Additionally, it will solidify the notion that we can use space as a medium to transfer such plans in a safe manner. Through QUESS, Mr. Pan and his colleagues will hopefully conquer the unknowns of space in a fashion we have never seen before.
(1) Chin, Josh. "China's Latest Leap Forward Isn't Just Great-It's Quantum." The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 20 Aug. 2016. Web.
(2) Lin, Jeffrey, P.W. Singer, and John Costello. "China's Quantum Satellite Could Change Cryptography Forever." Popular Science. Bonnier Corporation, 3 Mar. 2016. Web.
(3) Coldewey, Devin. "China Launches the First Quantum Communications Satellite – and What Is That, exactly?" TechCrunch. AOL Inc., 16 Aug. 2016. Web.
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Carlos was born in Chicago, Illinois and came to USC to study psychology with a minor in Business Administration. He has worked in healthcare and finance for the past two summers. Carlos also helped co-found Trojan Marketing Group, a group that develops marketing strategies for large companies. Carlos has been with Global Intelligence Trust since summer of 2016. He am most interested in writing about innovation in the technology sector and aerospace developments. Apart from academics, Carlos enjoys playing volleyball, hiking, and traveling.