China’s quantum network could soon span two continents, thanks to a satellite launched earlier today. Launched at 1:40PM ET, the Quantum Science Satellite is designed to distribute quantum-encrypted keys between relay stations in China and Europe. When working as planned, the result could enable unprecedented levels of security between parties on different continents.
The satellite works by the principles of quantum cryptography, similar to existing fiber-based quantum key distribution networks in Europe, China, and the US. By monitoring noise on the network, the system allows distant parties to obtain identical random strings of data without being intercepted by outside parties, providing the raw material for future encrypted communications. Properly applied, the systems resist nearly all conventional forms of decryption, and can be installed by adding specialized routing equipment to existing fiber optic cable.
The first device of its kind
China’s new satellite would put that same system to work over the air, utilizing high-speed coherent lasers to connect with base stations on two different continents. The experimental satellite’s payload also includes controllers and emitters related to quantum entanglement. Still, deploying such a system from space remains experimental, and while the launch was successful, there’s no guarantee the quantum equipment will work as planned.
If successful, the satellite will be the first device of its kind, enabling the world’s first trans-continental quantum key distribution network. It’s a project that was proposed to the European Space Agency as early as 2001, The Wall Street Journal reports, although it was unable to gain funding. The professor who first proposed the system, University of Vienna physicist Anton Zeilinger, is now working on the Chinese project.