Space Programme

Taking the lead

China launches the first hack-proof quantum satellite

Space w

Hack me if you can

Although he is often identified with codifying China’s traditional value system, Confucius was not the only influential Chinese philosopher. Another that spoke against the popular notions we know as ‘Confucianism’ was Micius, who promoted a concept of “universal love” in antithesis to the Confucian principle of filial piety.

As a carpenter by trade and a pacifist by nature, Micius was often contracted to design defensive structures for ruling warlords. Thus when China launched a satellite last week to experiment with a new form of communication, it was given the name “Micius” – perhaps to show that it was for the promotion of peace, and not an offensive act.

Micius – the satellite – will be testing the process of quantum communication. This method of transmitting information exploits a peculiarity in quantum physics known as entanglement. Entanglement allows for two particles, formed from the splitting of a singular particle, to influence the other’s state, no matter how great the distance between them.

Theoretically, if one of these entangled particles was placed on the moon and the other on Earth, a change in one would result in an instantaneous, corresponding change in the other. The primary benefit of this communication method is that it is virtually unhackable. Unsurprisingly this notion has generated a lot of government interest.

Thus China isn’t the only nation pursuing quantum communication technology. According to Quartz, a team of US, Singaporean and Danish researchers attempted to launch similar testing gear into space in 2014, but the NASA rocket carrying the payload exploded on launch.

The team behind the Micius project (officially named QUESS, or Quantum Experiments at Space Scale) is in fact a Chinese partnership with the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Pan Jianwei, who is leading the effort, studied in Austria; his former PhD supervisor now works with him on QUESS.

If it is a success, Micius will mark China’s transition “from a follower to a leader” in information technology, proclaimed Pan. Similarly he boasted that it demonstrates the effectiveness of China’s drive to attract global scientific talent. “We’ve taken all the good technology from labs around the world, absorbed it and brought it back,” Pan told state broadcaster CCTV.

The technology has the potential to create a substantial commercial market in China too. Based on capital already invested into the sector, National Business Daily suggests the industry could reach a value of Rmb50 billion ($7.5 billion) in the coming years. Naturally local tech companies are eager to get in on the bottom floor of this potentially lucrative industry.

In 2009, Pan Jianwei co-founded QuantumCTek, taking an 18% stake. The firm, which turned a Rmb50 million profit in 2015, includes a number of government entities amongst its shareholders, as well as the likes of Huawei and Lenovo. For companies like these, practical applications of quantum communication are already a reality. In 2015 Alibaba subsidiary AliCloud launched a quantum cryptography communication product in coordination with the Chinese Academy of Sciences – a product that uses quantum communication to send information more securely.

But, of course, the true advantage of quantum communication is military. In 2009, Pan himself was the first in China to establish a quantum encrypted communication network, which was utilised by officials to coordinate one of China’s military parades.

Pan told Caixin Weekly, “China is completely capable of making full use of quantum communications in a regional war […] the direction of development in the future calls for using relay satellites to realise quantum communications and control that covers the entire army.”

In short, Micius could be the Enigma coding and messaging system of our century, and if China pioneers its military usage that will worry the Pentagon. That said, even Germany’s ‘unbreakable’ Enigma was eventually broken…

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