China raises the cyber stakes with quantum satellite

The properties of quantum entanglement could deliver the first hack-proof communications.

China's successful launch of what is billed as the world's first hack-proof communications satellite promises to transform experimental ground networks into ultra-secure global links as China raises the stakes in its ongoing cyber rivalry with the west.

The recent launch of the 1,400-pound quantum satellite aboard a Long March-2D booster opens the door to a new era of secure communications that leverages the ephemeral properties of quantum physics, including the mysterious phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.

The Chinese satellite, dubbed Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), includes a quantum key communicator, quantum entangled transmitter, quantum-entangled photon source and a control processor, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is directing the project.

In quantum physics, entangled particles remain connected so that the actions of one affect the other, even when separated by great distances. China's QUESS experiment is designed to send one particle in the entangled pair—in this case a photon—into orbit to determine the feasibility of hack-proof quantum communications between the satellite and ground stations.

According the National Space Science Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, QUESS is among China's top strategic space priorities. The center notes that a research group led by physicist Pan Jianwei has made key advances in "free-space quantum entanglement distribution."

The goal of the QUESS experiment is developing a long-distance quantum communications network based on high-speed quantum key distribution between the satellite and ground stations.

The Chinese satellite was launched last week into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of about 372 miles. The quantum communications satellite is expected to operate for two years, Chinese officials estimate.

Beijing reportedly has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into basic research, which includes quantum physics. The United States invests about $200 million annually in quantum research, much of it overseen by the National Science Foundation. The majority of that funding has gone toward quantum computing projects at U.S. universities along with research projects sponsored by NASA and the Energy Department.

The Chinese experiment will seek to transmit a quantum cryptographic key from the satellite to ground stations in Beijing and Vienna. The goal is to test whether the quantum communications can be scaled from a metropolitan to a secure global network.

Quantum encryption is thought to be resistant to brut force computing power because data encrypted in a quantum particle would be destroyed during transmission if intercepted. Experts likened ultra-secure communications technology to sending a message in a soap bubble.