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Micius Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS)

China launched the world's first satellite into orbit using a technology to send communications back to Earth that it hopes will be secure from hackers. The satellite was launched into space 16 August 2016 on a Long March-2D rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province in the northwest Gobi Desert. The 600-plus-kilogram satellite, dubbed Micius after a 5th century BC Chinese philosopher and scientist, circles the Earth every 90 minutes.

The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale was launched into the sun-synchronous orbit with an altitude of 600kilometers and inclination angle of 97.79°. Its operating lifetime is 2 years. There are four kinds of payloads: quantum key communicator, quantum entangled transmitter, quantum entangled photon source and quantum control processor.

Light particles will be fired at Micius to determine if quantum physics will permit the secure encryption of long-range communication. During the satellite's two-year mission, it will establish "hack-proof" communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to ground.

Quantum key distribution, Bell’s inequality test and quantum teleportation have become the frontier of the quantum information and technology since quantum mechanics theory was founded in the early 20th century. The main developed countries and regions in the world have all put a lot of efforts into carrying out long-distance quantum communication theory and experiment research, preparing for the quantum communication experiment between the satellite and the ground station.

The Chinese scientist Professor PAN Jianwei, who is an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has made several important breakthroughs with his research group in the field of free-space quantum entanglement distribution and teleportation. All of their work have laid down a solid foundation for long-distance quantum communication and fundamental tests of the laws of quantum mechanics.

Scientific objectives of Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) are as follows:

  • Implementation of long-distance quantum communication network based on high-speed quantum key distribution (QKD) between the satellite and the ground station, to achieve major breakthroughs in the realization of space-based practical quantum communication.
  • Quantum entanglement distribution and quantum teleportation on space scale, fundamental tests of the laws of quantum mechanics on global scale.

Scientists in different parts of the world expressed their admiration for their Chinese colleagues for staging the feat, which they described as an important milestone for quantum communication. "It is a noble and difficult endeavor and I applaud the Chinese Academy of Sciences for its vision," said Spyridon Michalakis, a quantum scientist from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

"The launch of the first satellite to carry technology capable of space-based quantum cryptography is an important milestone towards the creation of a space-based quantum internet," the Caltech quantum researcher told Xinhua. The launch also has the potential to "transform the face of cloud-based computing and even science as we know it," he added. The program also was a reminder that "collaboration between countries, such as Austria and China in this case, can lead to results that are often more impressive than those based on competition alone," said Michalakis.

"I don't think the quantum communications system is as impregnable as the Chinese would have us believe," Morris Jones, an independent Australian space analyst who monitors the Chinese space program, told VOA's Victor Beattie 18 August 2016. Scientists in the U.S., Europe and Japan also are trying to exploit quantum physics technology, which can have military applications. But China has made the technology a top strategic focus in its five-year economic development plan released in March 2016, and may have spent tens of billions of dollars in basic research.

Despite his belief that the technology is not impregnable, Jones said the application of it in space is a major step forward for the Chinese. "The Chinese have one of the top space programs in the world, and they are still on an upward trajectory,” he said. “The Russians are stagnating and falling backward. If America does not regroup in the next five years, they will lose ground on China." Jones predicts the US space program could fall behind China's within the next 15 years if the US does not commit more resources to space initiatives.

The lead scientist on the project, Pan Jian-wei at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, said if this experiment is a success, China plans to launch a second such satellite within the next five years to develop a network based on the quantum technology.

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