According to Chinese state media the country has become the first to launch a quantum-enabled satellite.

The satellite was launched onboard a rocket which took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China this Tuesday, according to BBC. The Micius satellite is named after the Chinese scientist and philosopher of the same name.

China Quantum Satellite
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Micius satellite carries ambitious quantum communication project

Micius carries quantum communication technology that may be completely safe from hackers. The new kind of digital communication will now be tested by Chinese scientists.

In order to communicate the satellite will make pairs of tiny sub-atomic particles of light known as entangled photons, the properties of which are dependent on each other. One half of each pair will then be sent to ground stations in China and Austria.

The laser used to send the photons has some interesting properties, and one of them is called “the observer effect.” The effect means that the quantum state of the laser can’t be observed without it being changed.

As a result any interception of an encryption key in that quantum state would be noticeable, and would also change the key and make it useless. This would solve a huge problem of encrypted communications, which is how to send keys without them being intercepted.

China betting big on unproven technologies

If the project works, it would make for communications that are completely protected from hackers. However that may be a long way off.

This kind of technology has never been tested in space, however fiber optic quantum key distribution networks are in operation in the United States, Europe and China. The signals get weaker over distance as they travel through the cables, a problem which may be solved by sending them through space.

As well as the complicated physics, scientists also need to find a way to get the tiny sub-atomic particles from the satellite to precise targets on the Earth’s surface. This is no easy feat, as you may already have been able to tell.

China has been investing heavily in scientific research, and is taking risks on some unproven technologies. Beijing has partnered with Austria on the project, which is officially known as Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS).

Wider implications of quantum research

University of Vienna physicist Anton Zeilinger first proposed the idea to the European Space Agency (ESA), but to no avail. He is now working with Pan Jiawei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the project.

Other projects in the field are also underway in Canada, the U.S., and Japan, while the European Space Agency also has a project of its own. However China’s project is by far the most ambitious as things stand.

China is betting big on the technology, and any failure on its part could vindicate the caution shown by others. However if the Chinese-Austrian project is a success, other nations will be forced to catch up rapidly.

As hacking and surveillance technology becomes ever more sophisticated, maintaining the security of commercial communications is incredibly important.

“Quantum computing is largely seen as the next big thing in communications,” says Marc Einstein, Director of the Information Communications Technology (ICT) practice of Frost and Sullivan, Japan. Einstein believes that one early application could be the secure transaction of credit card data.

The technology could also improve precision in various fields, from healthcare to industrial production. “There are millions of applications. Some people say quantum computing could change everything,” said Einstein.