China’s quantum satellite to herald new era

The imminent launch of the world’s first quantum communication satellite is widely believed to herald a breakthrough in China’s development of quantum technology.

Mysterious and confusing, the study of minute particles smaller than atoms has been applied in fields as diverse as computer processing, lasers and nuclear technology.

China will launch the world’s first quantum communication satellite in a matter of days.

Amid the intense preparations for the quantum communication satellite, scientists hope it can help unravel one of the strangest phenomena in quantum physics — quantum entanglement.

By beaming individual entangled photons between space and ground stations, the satellite should be able to test whether the quantum’s entanglement property extends over the record-breaking distance.

“We have the technology to produce pairs of entangled photons on the satellite,” said Pan Jianwei, academician of Chinese Academy of Science and chief scientist of Chinese quantum communication satellite project.

One photon of an entangled pair will be beamed to a station in Delingha in northwest China’s Qinghai Province, and the other to a station in Lijiang in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, or in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China. The distance between the two ground stations is about 1,200 kilometers.

How will quantum communication change our lives, especially in the age of cyber attacks, wiretapping and information leakage?

Based on the quantum phenomenon that a tiny particle acts as if it’s simultaneously in two locations, quantum computing could dwarf the processing power of today’s supercomputers.

In normal silicon computer chips, data is rendered in one of two states: 0 or 1. However, in quantum computers, data could exist in both states simultaneously, holding exponentially more information.

One analogy to explain the concept of quantum computing is that it is like being able to read all the books in a library at the same time, whereas conventional computing is like having to read them one after another.

Scientists say that a problem that takes Tianhe-2, one of the fastest super computers in China, 100 years to solve might take a quantum computer just one hundredth of a second.

In July 2015, a quantum-computing lab jointly established by Chinese Academy of Science and Chinese Internet giant Alibaba opened in Shanghai. The lab is expected to produce a general-purpose quantum computer prototype with 50 to 100 quantum bits by 2030. Such powerful computing ability is also viewed as a threat as it could make everything on a conventional computer hackable.

However, like a coin with two sides, quantum mechanics also serves as protector of information. Quantum key technology boasts ultra-high security as a photon can be neither separated nor duplicated, so it is impossible to wiretap or intercept the information transmitting through it, experts say.

Moreover, it has the ability to inform the two communicating users of the presence of any third party trying to eavesdrop. At the same time, the information being intercepted would “collapse” or self-destruct.

Meanwhile, China will complete and put into operation the world’s first secure quantum communication backbone network, the Beijing-Shanghai backbone network, later this year, Pan said.

The 2,000km backbone network will be used in the fields of finance, electronics and government affairs. The satellite and the ground-based network will ensure the secure passage of information, Pan said.

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