China is planning to bring quantum physics to space. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Academy of Sciences are collaborating to build a satellite that will perform the first ever quantum experiments in orbit. The experiments could have applications in future telescopes and communication technology.
The Chinese satellite will be launched sometime in August, where it will test the limits of quantum communication. Onboard the satellite will be a special crystal that generates pairs of entangled photons, which will be fired at two laboratories in Beijing and Vienna. These photons will be used to test the range of quantum entanglement and the feasibility of quantum communications.
Quantum communications rely on a particular property of subatomic particles, that observing them changes their state. Researchers have previously developed ways to use this property to encrypt data, because anyone eavesdropping on communications would leave a mark. The satellite team hopes to deploy this technology in space, where transmitting quantum data is easier.
The satellite will test another peculiar quantum phenomenon: entanglement. Quantum entanglement is where two particles seem to share the same state, and changing the state of one particle will change the state of the other, even when the two are incredibly far apart. Einstein famously called this "spooky action at a distance," and the Chinese satellite will test it over the greatest distance yet. By splitting up a pair of entangled photons and sending them to Vienna and Beijing, scientists hope to study entanglement effects over more than 700 miles.
This satellite will likely be the first of many quantum satellites that China and other countries will launch over the next few years. China is planning to launch several more satellites to form a quantum communications network that will allow secure communications with anyone in the world. Other collaborations, like one between the National University of Singapore and the University of Strathclyde, proposed launching multiple small cubesats to perform entanglement experiments. A Canadian team is working on how to entangle photons on the ground and send them to a satellite in orbit.
We live in a quantum world now, and space is just beginning to reflect that.
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