China launches quantum satellite for ‘hack-proof’ communications

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Beijing hopes satellite will create communications system with significant military and commercial applications.

China says it has launched the world’s first quantum satellite, a project Beijing hopes will enable it to build a coveted “hack-proof” communications system with potentially significant military and commercial applications.

Xinhua, Beijing’s official news service, said Micius, a 600kg satellite that is nicknamed after an ancient Chinese philosopher, “roared into the dark sky” over the Gobi desert at 1.40am local time on Tuesday, carried by a Long March-2D rocket.

“The satellite’s two-year mission will be to develop ‘hack-proof’ quantum communications, allowing users to send messages securely and at speeds faster than light,” Xinhua reported.

The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale, or Quess, satellite programme is part ofan ambitious space programme that has accelerated since Xi Jinping became Communist party chief in late 2012.

“There’s been a race to produce a quantum satellite, and it is very likely that China is going to win that race,” Nicolas Gisin, a professor and quantum physicist at the University of Geneva, told the Wall Street Journal. “It shows again China’s ability to commit to large and ambitious projects and to realise them.”

The satellite will be tasked with sending secure messages between Beijing and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a sprawling region of deserts and snow-capped mountains in China’s extreme west.

Highly complex attempts to build such a “hack-proof” communications network are based on the scientific principle of entanglement.

According to this theory, two particles become “entangled” when they interact. However, any subsequent interaction impacts on both particles. “It is hence impossible to wiretap, intercept or crack the information transmitted through it,”Xinhua reported after Tuesday’s launch.

Speaking to Nature magazine earlier this year, the Chinese physicist in charge of the project, Pan Jianwei, said the launch would push the boundaries of scientific knowledge. “[But] if you want to explore new physics, you must push the limit.”

“I think China has an obligation not just to do something for ourselves – many other countries have been to the moon, have done manned spaceflight – but to explore something unknown,” added Pan, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

After Tuesday’s launch Pan told Xinhua the mission marked “a transition in China’s role … from a follower in classic information technology (IT) development to one of the leaders guiding future IT achievements”.

Beijing’s official news agency said there were “enormous prospects” for the use of such technology in fields including defence, military and finance.