China Launches World's First Quantum Communications Satellite

The launch, pictured, took place early Tuesday morning. STR/AFP/Getty Images

China has launched an ambitious mission to test out the world’s first quantum satellite, a move that could lead to communications that are extremely difficult to hack or intercept in the future.

The launch took place from the Jiuquan launch center in northwest China’s Gansu Province on Tuesday 16 August. The satellite, named Micius after a fifth-century BCE Chinese scientist, weighs 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds) and has a suite of instruments on board to test out this fledgling technology.

Called the Quantum Science Satellite (QUESS), the spacecraft will be placed in Earth orbit, where it will then begin experimental testing of quantum communications. And the plans don’t stop there; if it is successful, China wants to send up more quantum satellites and create a quantum communications network by 2030, according to Xinhua.

The idea of quantum communications relies on something called quantum entanglement. Essentially, this means that the quantum properties of two particles can be linked, even when they are separated by vast distances. If one is changed, the other changes.

This satellite will fire one half of each pair of particles to base stations in China and Austria. If one of the two particles were to be intercepted, the state of both would change – meaning it is easy to spot anyone trying to read the messages. Some think this technique could be used for unhackable communications, an important ability in today’s world.

However, the idea is anything but proven. There are several projects taking place in other countries, including the US and the UK, to test this on a smaller scale. But China has taken a huge leap of faith in launching this satellite. If it works, they’ll be miles ahead of everyone else with the technology.

The satellite will undergo three months of testing before Chinese scientists begin their experiments, so don’t expect results anytime soon. But it will be worth keeping an eye on; there could be a quantum space race on the horizon.

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