Lately, China has been on the frontier of innovative technology, from abnormally cheap phones to straddling buses, but they seem to have really outdone themselves this time, launching the world’s first quantum communications satellite, which could establish a hack-proof communication line between Europe and China.
The satellite, called the “Quantum Experiments at Space Scale” (QUESS), and nicknamed “Micius” or “Mozi” — a Chinese philosopher from the 5th century BC — was launched in the Gobi Desert earlier today, Xinhua reports. It weighs around 600 kilograms and piggybacked a ride on a Long March-2D rocket. QUESS will subsequently enter a heliosynchronous orbit, meaning it will pass over any given point on Earth at the same solar time.
The chief scientist on the project, Pan Jianwei, is working with the Chinese Academy of Science as well as his former mentor, Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna. Zeilinger previously proposed the idea of the European Space Agency back in 2001, but could not gain funding, the Wall Street Journal reports.
It is estimated that the quantum communications project will take around 2 years to successfully create a communication line.
“If China is going to send more quantum communication satellites into orbit, we can expect a global network of quantum communications to be set up around 2030,” Pan adds.
The theorem behind this communication method is Quantum Entanglement. When two particles are entangled, they can exist in separate locations, but a change in one particle will still affect the other particle. This can be understood be using the famous thought experiment “Schrödinger’s cat,” where the cat is simultaneously dead and alive.
The satellite would essentially beam the particles to stations, which will be more than 1,000 km apart. The stations will be able to pick up the particles, decipher them and then read the messages. In addition, the communication speed achieved through quantum entanglement would be a huge leap for space technology. Astronauts in spaceships light years away will theoretically be able to immediately send messages without time delay.
Quantum particles cannot be duplicated or separated, meaning that the information that it transmits will not be hackable. Given the reputation of some online vigilantes, that is an extremely important point.
Of course, this type of technology holds potential military value, but Pan and his team reportedly argued against that use with generals from the People’s Liberation Army. Though it is not a secret military satellite, it is unclear whether the QUESS will be for military use or not.
Though in theory, the satellite might work, there are quite a few limitations and obstacles as well. For starters, if there were anything wrong with the hardware of the satellite, scientists would not be able to alter it. Furthermore, the greatest entanglement distance that the team was able to achieve on the ground was 100 kilometers, which is quite a long way from the 1,000 km goal, SCMP reports.
But Pan has reassured the public by arguing that quantum information can not travel that far on land because of the loss of photons in transmission due to barriers. Therefore, since there are few barriers when traveling through space and the Earth’s atmosphere, photons would not be as obstructed.
On the other hand, the transmission between the satellite and stations needs to be incredibly accurate. Pan said that it will “require an alignment system of the quantum satellite that is 10 times as accurate as that of an ordinary one” and “the detector on the ground can only catch one in every one million entangled photons fired.”
So, will this thing work? Or will it become another “straddling bus?”
Watch the launch here:
By Sarah Lin
[Images via Xinhua // Video via YouTube]