An intrepid team of researchers has created a new innovative protocol for quantum communication, according to an exclusive report from Space.com.
This could revolutionize the way we encrypt and send sensitive information.
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Space-based quantum communication experiment
The team's new quantum method aims to use a low-orbit satellite to transmit encrypted messages to stations on the ground over greater physical distance than other methods of long-range communications.
This might revolutionize how we share data best suited for a limited number of eyes — protecting information in a time of rising global cybersecurity threats.
Quantum communication — also called quantum key distribution — encodes data sent from one device to another using nothing but the laws of physics. This is done via sending encrypted data through particles called quantum bits, or qubits, reports Space.com.
Qubits: how quantum communication works
Qubits' properties are linked in pairs, which are generated in random order. This means the qubit pairs shared between a sending and receiving device spells out a secret phrase subsequently used to encrypt a follow-up transmission of data.
Quantum communication systems work via the use of single photons (light itself) — which are encoded in a quantum superposition state, where particles behave like waves. Once encoded, these photons are transmitted to distant locations.
This mechanism of encoding and decoding is used between distant parties that each share a string of random bits known as secret keys. These in turn are used to encrypt and decrypt secret messages.
Adapting quantum keys in LEO with China's Micius
"Previous attempts to directly distribute quantum keys between two ground users under real-world conditions have reached distances of only around 100 kilometers," said Jian-Wei Pan, a quantum physicist and professor of physics at the University of Science and Technology in China who's also lead author of the new study, to Space.com. "A promising solution to this problem is exploiting satellites."
Researchers engaged in this experiment employed a satellite in low-Earth orbit (LEO) called Micius — named after an ancient Chinese philosopher — as a transmission source from which to downlink data to an optical ground station.
Launched in 2016, Micius was the world's first quantum communication satellite, and has remained in LEO moving at roughly 18,000 mph (28,968 kph) ever since.
Quantum entanglement in LEO
Aboard the Micius satellite, pairs of entangled photons are generated, split up, then distributed via two bidirectional downlinks to two ground observatories in Delingha and Nanshan in China — which are 756 miles (1,200 km) away from one another.
The experiment successfully increased the distance between two parties compared to other experiments. In earlier ones, quantum communication attempts were made at a range of 62 miles (roughly 100 km).
Now they work at 756 miles (roughly 1,200 km), reports Space.com.
Space-based quantum communication has greater effective distance
This is in part due to the lack of different materials in Micius' environment. In space, there's nothing in the way of transmissions. Nothing like air, gases, water or the rocky Earth itself.
"That way, one can conveniently connect two remote points on Earth with greatly reduced channel loss because most of the photons' propagation path is in empty space with negligible loss and decoherence," said Pan to Space.com.
This space-based experiment has continued since 2017, when quantum communication was even more nascent. In September 2017, China introduced the world's first long-distance quantum communication landline — which connected the Beijing to Shanghai.
Quantum communication is beginning to look like the next-gen standard for data exchange — offering new and unrivaled security as a means of sharing sensitive information around the world. This recent experiment in LEO embodies a step toward the development of a new global system for sharing encrypted data that experts say is virtually hacker-proof.