A major breakthrough in physics and a potent weapon in the ever-widening battle for information supremacy, the quantum satellite Mozi, on orbit at around 500 kilometers, is a symbol of both scientific progress and a harbinger of a new era of ultra-secure communications.

As we’ve reported before, the Mozi (sometimes anglicized as “Micius”) satellite is a warning to the world that classical encryption is not only a threatened species, but also that truly “secure” communications are almost assuredly part of the future. In an increasingly volatile world, information security will lead to information supremacy. The scientists charged with developing a quantum cryptography satellite project in China, led by Dr. Pan Jianwei, launched Mozi last August. The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale program is said to be inspired by two names, one famous and the other perhaps soon to be: Edward Snowden, an American contractor who leaked U.S. defense secrets to the controversial open government website Wikileaks, and Dr. Pan Jianwei himself, respectively. Sources suggested that U.S. intelligence fervently hoped the entire thing was propaganda, as that government had halted most research into quantum optical networks.

Now, the QUESS scientists have begun to share what they’ve learned, and there’s every indication it’s very real. Dr. Jianwei’s team have demonstrated the platform’s ability to delivered “entangled” photons to several ground-based stations. The entangled photons, received by the millions, are used as a clever method of key distribution, just as in any classical encryption; however, that is where the similarity ends. Entangled photons react to changes instantaneously, without regard to the distance they are from each other. This means true “faster than light” communications. In addition, the keys are impossible to break, because any observer (“Eve”, in encryption shorthand) irrevocably changes the entangled photons simply by observing them.

The military ramifications are obvious, but the transition to quantum encryption will have an incredibly disruptive effect on the financial industries —  let alone the information technology sector, which will be forced to retool itself from the foundation up. Advances in quantum computing are all but assured of eventually creating a new “quantum internet”, as well. China, who has been criticized as a currency manipulator by many in the U.S. government, is working to include Europe in a quantum network that could effectively shield a vast swath of the world’s financial information. Encryption is used by financial institutions to protect themselves from the prying eyes of competing institutions, governments, and cyber thieves. A quantum encryption solution would be inherently secure, and therefore a significant competitive edge. 

As disruptive as these discoveries are for the defense and finance sectors, it is easy to overlook the scale of the Mozi satellite’s impact on science and physics.

“Einstein locality is inconsistent with quantum theory. Only one can be right,” wrote Dr. Jonathan Dowling in an e-mail. Dowling, co-director of the Hearne Institute for Theoretical Physics at Louisiana State University, is one of few Western scientists to receive a tour of the Chinese facility where the QUESS experiments are based. Dowling’s book, Schrödinger’s Killer App, is an excellent layman’s guide to the staggering potential of quantum networks — and a clarion call to the US government, which defunded a good portion of its quantum research in 2010.

“This experiment provided evidence that Einstein locality is only an approximation to reality.”

Einstein’s principle of local realism demands that, for an action to have effect somewhere else, something between must convey that action, such as a radio signal (wave) or a bullet (particle) — and that interaction is limited by the maximum speed of light, as his theory of Special Relativity posits that nothing can exceed that boundary.

But quantum entanglement suggests that acting on one of two distinct particles, such as two photons, can have an immediate effect on the other, regardless of the distance. The implications are heady.

The Micius satellite program isn’t only providing entangled pairs at a much higher rate than has ever been delivered by ground-based methods (up to 17 orders of magnitude higher), but the the entire program is moving along at a much faster clip than was projected.

“The first satellite was supposed to have a 4-year mission, but they completed all the mission goals in nine months. Hence, they will continue doing experiments with this prototype and then go for funds to make more, I think,” said Dowling. “The ground links are mostly in place and are carrying already or will soon financial data in additional to government. The only real new thing the satellite allows is to hook all these city-wide quantum local area networks together. This will take some time. The current satellite is really a proof of principle that will be used to design a future network [of satellites and ground links.]”

The Chinese quantum program is part of that country’s 13th “Five Year Plan,” which serve to set the agenda for national and international priorities. Part of that plan is to have a network of quantum cryptography satellites on orbit and a functionally unbreakable quantum encryption network. This would effectively allow China to “go dark,” meaning classical signals-intelligence techniques and networks would be rendered useless.

The U.S., however, walked away from quantum cryptography technology development in favor of placing an emphasis on building a quantum computer that could break any classical encryption. That is likely to be less valuable if future networks won’t use classical encryption, but due to a lack of viable quantum memory, the quantum program didn’t get very far, anyway. Dowling estimates that quantum networks in the U.S. are around 10 years behind China’s program.

“I think Congress is aware, but unless there is a quantum Manhattan Project I don’t know about, the funds have been flat. I expect things might change,” said Dowling of the U.S. quantum program. (The Manhattan Project was the U.S. program to build the first atomic weapon, which ultimately was used to end WWII.) “Frankly, I’d say about 50 percent of the people in the government I approached told me that they thought the satellite wasn’t real and was some sort of propaganda ploy…Given that we HOPE funding will come soon for the development of quantum networks, we have been moving our research center of mass in that direction.”

David S. Lewis
Lewis has been a writer, journalist, and editor for over a decade; his work has covered politics, policy, tech, and more. He is the co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink Blog, a trade publication which covers advances in commercial space-based industry.

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