In the next few days, China plans to launch a quantum satellite into orbit around the Earth.
And with that rocket launch, the country is poised to take the lead in a new space race.
That’s because the satellite, QUESS, is virtually un-hackable.
QUESS will use an advanced form of communication built on quantum computing. If a third party tries to hack it, this method can change the message or cancel it so the third party will never see it.
As major countries reportedly hack each other with increasing frequency, secure communications have become increasingly important to national security. Right now, quantum cryptography looks like our best alternative for the future, information technology expert Ron Steinfeld writes in The Conversation.
And China is pouring more money and focus into the field than the US is, the Wall Street Journal reports. The US doesn’t have any concrete plans for a quantum satellite at the moment.
The nearly 1,400-pound QUESS will be the first quantum satellite to go into space, and it will allow Chinese researchers to test sending quantum information farther than ever before.
The longest distance researchers have sent quantum keys over so far is 190 miles, according to a study in Nature Phototonics. QUESS will try to send quantum information from the ground to the satellite’s orbit 310 miles up, the project’s chief scientist Pan Jianwei told China Central Television.
The Chinese researchers think they will be able to send quantum information over larger distances in space because the packets of light called photons carrying it travel more smoothly there, according to Nature.
While experts predict we — or, more accurately, very smart quantum computers we create — might be able to hack quantum cryptography one day, the method is pretty much the most secure option we have for now.
Chaoyang Lu, a physicist on the QUESS team, told Nature in July that he thinks the satellite’s launch will spark a new space race.
If QUESS works, China could launch more quantum satellites to build an encrypted, global communication network.
Then, if American scientists figure out how to hack quantum cryptography, for example, Chinese scientists could have to develop an even more secure version of it — and so on, and so on.
The quantum space race has begun.
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