Science geeks, sci-fi nerds, space-fiends and appreciators of all things cool, rejoice. Because China just did something totally badass: teleporting a photon from the surface of Earth to a satellite orbiting in space more than 500km away.
Ok, ok, so teleportation isn’t all that new for quantum optics labs. In fact, scientists have known about it for almost three decades. And, in recent years, they have been able to achieve teleportation inside labs. But what China has managed to do is still a BIG deal. And so, for any non-science people such as ourselves, here’s what Chinese scientists managed to accomplish, in the simplest terms possible:
The concept of teleportation has, over the years, become intertwined with the more fantastical aspects of science fiction, such as Scotty’s occupation in Star Trek. But what Chinese scientists are doing now is something much different.
Real-life teleportation depends upon a concept called quantum entanglement, which is when two (or more) objects (e.g. photons) form at the same time and at the same point in space. Due to this simultaneous formation, the two particles share the same “existence.” This means that when the two particles are separated, they still behave like the same, single object… so what does this have to do with teleportation?
Well, this means that when something happens to one particle, the second particle receives that information over the entangled link and assumes the same characteristics and the same identity as the first. And that’s pretty much it… sort of.
So, to begin with, last year Chinese scientists launched a quantum communications satellite, affectionately called Micius, into orbit. The job of the satellite is to receive particles and “detect their quantum states.” Next, they created a whole bunch of entangled pairs of photons (4,000/second to be exact) and kept one of each pair in their lab in the Gobi Desert and sent the other to the satellite in orbit. To see if it actually worked, the scientists measured the behavior of each photon in a pair to see if they were acting identically (i.e. the entangled link was still intact), and indeed they were. Boom: teleportation.
People are justifiably extremely excited about this progression because 500km is the farthest distance over which quantum entanglement has ever been achieved. Theoretically, there is no limit to the distance over which such a link could be created. This development is also immensely important considering China’s interests in quantum communication, which would provide an un-hackable channel for information.
But, before anyone starts to fill out job applications for the USS Enterprise, it should be noted that scientists are still a long way off from figuring out how to make quantum communication work, let alone teleport anything but single particles.
Even so, we suppose it can’t hurt to dream.
Live long and prosper.
By Emma Abrams
[Images via MIT Technology Review]
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