WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Unlike traditional communications technologies quantum communications are unhackable, so countries are racing to deploy them.
Highly secure global communication based on Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), a secure communications cryptographic protocol that’s based on the eerie phenomenon of quantum mechanics, could eventually be made possible by swarms of tiny CubeSats so say Singapore and UK researchers who have just joined together under a $13million program that’s aiming to launch a small quantum communications satellite by 2021.
The announcement comes almost exactly a year after China’s pioneering demonstration where scientists in China held a video call with colleagues in Austria across the world’s first unhackable quantum network connection, of how a satellite can hand off secret one time encryption QKD keys, which are made theoretically unhackable thanks to the physics of quantum mechanics, between ground stations located halfway across the world.
By developing a quantum satellite in a much smaller and more affordable package it’s hoped that the two countries could hasten global deployment of quantum satellite constellations capable of connecting cities around the world which would begin making an unhackable, global quantum internet much more of a likely reality.
“Nobody has ever tried to do this with a small satellite,” says Alexander Ling, head of the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore.
The Singapore-UK proposal relies upon pairs of photons, single particles of light, that exist in a state of quantum entanglement. Changes to one photon can affect its entangled buddy, wherever it is in the universe, something Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” which allows the entangled photons to act as “identical quantum messengers” carrying secret keys that could securely encrypt video calls and all manner of other data transmissions.
Meanwhile, a spy attempting to intercept the secret key would be foiled by quantum physics. The mere act of trying to read the information contained in the photons would change their state and tip off the recipient that the key had been compromised.
A satellite based QKD network could offer a hackproof alternative to the usual public key algorithms that handle almost all of the world’s data communications used in modern banking and payment systems.
A joint Singapore-UK team also set a quantum communications benchmark in the same year that the Chinese quantum satellite called Meniscus launched and teleported particles 300km to a ground station. Before China’s launch, the Singapore-UK group successfully launched and tested a compact quantum system that could create and measure correlated pairs of photons as a precursor to creating entangled pairs of photons.
The latest and much more ambitious effort puts a special twist on the quantum satellite concept by trying to make it work within the small size constraints of a tiny CubeSat. Whereas the Chinese quantum satellite weighs in at more than 600kg, the final design for the Singapore-UK satellite dubbed “QKD Qubesat” may end up being closer to 12kg and be the size of a shoebox.
Putting a quantum communications system on a much smaller satellite means there is little room for redundant backup systems, in case part of the system fails. Singapore’s Centre for Quantum Technologies has already tested its system’s capability to survive harsh conditions including simulated launch vibrations aboard a rocket and extreme temperature cycles similar to those found in space.
“I’m pretty happy to say that the last round of testing we’ve been doing shows the system holds up under fairly dramatic conditions,” Ling says.
Another big challenge for the tiny quantum satellite is successfully transmitting a key contained within a photon from space to Earth. That photon handoff requires precise alignment between a telescope aboard the quantum satellite and a telescope at the ground station. For a tiny CubeSat, maintaining telescope alignment will require the entire satellite to continuously adjust its orientation in orbit as it tracks the appropriate ground station.
Until recently, such precise control would have been tricky to achieve aboard a tiny CubeSat. That’s where the expertise of the UK team comes in handy. The UK Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space group in the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is in charge of developing both the CubeSat platform and the optical tracking for the telescope that can achieve extreme pointing accuracy and precisely track ground stations.
“The key is really the tracking system,” says Andy Vick, head of disruptive technology at RAL. “The sat needs to track to [within] +/- 1 degree and the optical tracker to [within] +/- 10 arc-seconds.”
The QKD Qubesat announcement kicks off what Vick describes as a “very intense 24 month design development period” going from early concept to final design, but if all goes well the team may achieve another first in the race to deploy quantum communications in space.