The quantum space race is here


Europe is racing to introduce massive quantum technology into space, with no less than three public-private companies to launch a quantum communications satellite. The trend across the Atlantic poses an obvious question: where does the United States stand in this Chinese-dominated race since it sent the first quantum satellite in 2016. The answer has strategic as well as technological implications.

A quantum satellite uses photons that are inextricably linked or “entangled” by quantum physics to communicate with a station on the ground. The quantum entangled link allows the teleportation of information at the speed of light, but also means that any attempt to intercept the signal immediately cuts the link, making hacking impossible. Quantum communications satellites will not only become hubs of a future quantum internet, but also hubs for hack-proof networks for transferring data and classified communications, not to mention command architecture. and control that will be integral to dominating the space domain.

Last month, the European Space Agency announced plans for a consortium of 20 companies to launch a quantum satellite in 2024. The satellite will use quantum key distribution (QKD) technology. that is, the exchange of known encryption keys only between the shared parties. for secure European quantum communication networks. The satellite will fly in low Earth orbit (LEO
) and will be linked to an operations center based in Luxembourg.

In February, Singapore-based aerospace company SpeQtral also announced that it would launch its first QKD satellite, SpeQtral-1, in 2024 with help from the Singapore Office for Space Technology and Industry and the French aerospace company Thales. Not expecting to be outdone in this regard, Virgin Orbit has partnered with UK company Arqit Quantum for no less than five LEO QKD satellite launches, starting in 2023. Interestingly, these launches would serve government customers potential with Arqit’s “Federated Quantum System”. which is currently only available to departments of defense in Five Eyes nations.

QKD is a proven technology: companies like IDQuantique in Switzerland and QLabs in Australia have been providing quantum ciphers to their customers for years (full disclosure: both are founding members of the Hudson Institute’s Quantum Alliance initiative). Deploying this technology in space is trickier, and all of these satellite projects will be experiments, at least initially. But it was China that launched the first quantum satellite in 2016, dubbed Micius, and used it a year later to figure out how to establish long-range QKD communication between ground stations more than 1,200 km apart. In July, China sent a second quantum encryption satellite, believed to be one-sixth the mass of its 2016 predecessor.

Additionally, according to Science Daily, in August, China’s orbiting space lab Tiangong-2 transmitted quantum encryption keys to four ground stations, the same ground stations capable of receiving quantum keys from the orbiting satellite Micius, which uses the space station as a repeater. .

These are all steps towards creating a constellation of quantum encryption-enabled satellites over a range of orbits, carrying long-distance communications that are unhackable and opaque to those unaware of quantum key. .

So where is the United States in all of this? Strangely, even though the very first QKD network was created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2003, our government and especially our National Security Agency have been largely indifferent to the possibilities of entanglement and QKD-based communication, while suggesting Chinese interest in the technology has been a waste of time and money. Recently, the Air Force Research Lab funded research into using drones for quantum entangled networks, but those overseeing those efforts fail to see how using quantum technology that only works when the satellite and the ground station are perfectly aligned, marking a great improvement over current systems.

Although American chips
and the Science Act of 2022, signed by President Biden in August, allocates more than $153 million a year to quantum computing and networking, it is unlikely to encourage further work toward QKD-based systems. in the sky.

This attitude may need to change, however, if the Chinese and Europeans are able to demonstrate how to create a true QKD-based network using multiple satellites connected to multiple ground stations – a network beyond the reach of even the most basic hacker. sophisticated.

All things considered, if the United States enters the quantum satellite race, it is unlikely to do so alone. Instead, those who would like to see America benefit from this emerging technological showdown will have to encourage a foreign partner to step in and offer to help motivate our scientists, engineers, and eventually the government to make that next big quantum leap, this time. in the field of space.


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