China’s Quantum Satellite- the end of communications hacking?

In recent years, China has experienced many major technological advances in the field of space science. The most recent of these advances began on 16 August last year when China launched the world’s first quantum satellite: Micius. The program has yielded record-breaking results and continues to assist groundbreaking research in field of communication. It is hoped that data collected from the satellite will enable the creation of ultra-secure networks, which will banish the threat posed by hackers, and even lead to the creation of a quantum internet.

In short, Quantum Physics deals with physical phenomena at a nanoscopic scale. This particular branch uses quantum entanglement to link photons (particles which transmit light) in a state with shared properties- they should theoretically remain linked even if physically separated.

The Chinese satellite beams photons which are linked by quantum entanglement to two base stations on the ground. The stations are separated by 1,200 kilometers, which is the furthest distance that entangled particles have ever been separated by.

However, why would this pave the way for more secure, hack-proof communications? The answer lies in the fact that any interference with the beams of photons is immediately detectable. The streams of photons can be used as ‘keys’ that secure the transmission. As with normal encryption, it works if both parties have the encryption key; but with quantum entanglement, this ‘key’ is encoded in the shared properties of the entangled particles. This means that anyone trying to hack or eavesdrop on the communication would instantly disrupt the key and the entanglement on a nanoscopic scale, alerting everyone instantly to a compromised transmission.

As hacking or eavesdropping on supposedly ‘secure’ communications is a major security and political issue this new technology could help protect against crime and leaks. If China can successfully pioneer new breakthroughs in the field, it will give China a key advantage in global cyber security and communications. As a result, groups from Canada, Japan, Italy and, Singapore are already embarking on their own research into quantum space science in response. Chaoyang Lu, a physicist who worked on the $100-million project stated: “Definitely, I think there will be a [quantum communications] race. If the first satellite goes well, China will definitely launch more”. He thinks around 20 satellites would be required to enable secure communications throughout the world.

Some, however, are skeptical. Dwayne Melancon, chief technology officer at Tripwire Inc. does not see it as a “practical solution to the eavesdropping problem”. He states: “There is a high likelihood that this satellite communication system will be connected to a traditional, terrestrial network at some point. If that happens, even if the data cannot be intercepted from the quantum satellite, it will likely be vulnerable on the terrestrial network.” Thus, the threat of crime and leaks will continue to exist because of current limitations regardless of advances in the quantum field.

A collaboration between Singapore and the UK are looking at using CubeSats, smaller 5kg satellites, to carry out their quantum experiments. Each of these CubeSats costs a relatively small $100,000. If successful, this could make quantum communications much more accessible. So far pairs of ‘correlated’ photons in orbit have been produced, with hopes to produce entangled particles soon. Canada, on the other hand, is researching generating the paired photons on the ground then beaming them up into space. However, it seems for the next few years at least, this new area of scientific study will most likely be dominated by China.