The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) satellite was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, Gansu Province in Northwest China at 1.40 am Tuesday atop a Long March-2D rocket.
The 640-kilogram satellite will orbit once every 90 minutes after it enters a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometers. In its two-year mission, QUESS is designed to establish “hack-proof” quantum communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to the ground, and provide insights into the strangest phenomenon in quantum physics – quantum entanglement, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
The satellite has been given the moniker “Micius,” a fifth century BC Chinese scientist and philosopher, who is credited as the first person to conduct optical experiments, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announced Monday.
Spear and shield
Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert who served in the Second Artillery Corps (now the Rocket Force), told the Global Times that quantum technology is currently mainly used in two ways. The first is in quantum computing which can be used for code breaking; the second is quantum communications which can protect information from hacking. “They are just like a spear and shield,” Song said.
In normal silicon computer chips, data is rendered in one of two states: 0 or 1. However, in quantum computers, data could exist in both states simultaneously, holding exponentially more information. Scientists say that a quantum computer will take just 0.01 of a second to deal with a problem that would take Tianhe-2, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, 100 years to solve, Xinhua reported.
This technology could be a threat: If large-scale quantum computers are ever built, they will be able to crack all existing information encryption systems, and then this will bring a “global information security problem and cause great panic across the globe,” Yuan Lanfeng, an associate research fellow from the University of Science and Technology of China, told the Global Times.
Song said in an age of cyber attacks and global electronic surveillance, “some great powers, such as the US, Russia and the EU, are also putting great efforts into researching quantum technology, because it can be used in many areas, not only for civilian uses but will also be very important for the military.”
Quantum communications will be needed to encrypt information against cyber attacks, and offers a new generation of cryptography that can be neither wiretapped nor decoded.
In quantum communications if during a conversation someone tries to wiretap it, the conversation’s content would be changed and the external attack would be detected, Yuan said.
The Cyberspace Administration of China says that the country faces serious threats from external cyber attacks, and that 80 percent of government departments had been hacked. These attacks mainly originate from the US.
First in the world
“The newly-launched satellite marks a transition in China’s role, from a follower in classic information technology (IT) development to one of the leaders guiding future IT achievements,” Pan Jianwei, chief scientist of QUESS, told Xinhua.
This satellite means China is the first country to use a space-based platform to test the use of quantum technology in long distance communications, Song said.
Yuan added that “in many other areas, China’s achievements are based on the improvement of Western countries’ technologies, but this time, China is doing something that other countries never have before.”
However, questions have been raised as to the cost-effectiveness and the maturity of the technology, as other countries have not yet launched such a satellite.
Yuan responded that the main reason is the lack of money in other countries.
“We can see European countries have not launched any great technological research programs in the past decade, so they don’t have the courage to take the risk if the program fails,” he said.
“More importantly, the technology will never be mature if we don’t test it,” Yuan noted.
Song added that while the launch itself is a remarkable achievement, the testing will require time and money, and has risks.