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China nears launch of hack-proof ‘quantum communications’ link

Technology to be employed for military and other official uses

BEIJING (Caixin Online) — This may be a quantum-leap year for an initiative that accelerates data transfers close to the speed of light with no hacking threats through so-called “quantum communications” technology.

Within months, China plans to open the world’s longest quantum-communications network, a 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) electronic highway linking government offices in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

Meanwhile, the country’s aerospace scientists are preparing a communications satellite for a 2016 launch that would be a first step toward building a quantum communications network in the sky. It’s hoped this and other satellites can be used to overcome technical hurdles, such as distance restrictions, facing land-based systems.

Physicists around the world have spent years working on quantum-communications technology. But if all goes as planned, China would be the first country to put a quantum-communications satellite in orbit, said Wang Jianyu, deputy director of the China Academy of Science’s (CAS) Shanghai branch.

At a recent conference on quantum science in Shanghai, Wang said scientists from CAS and other institutions have completed major research and development tasks for launching the satellite equipped with quantum-communications gear.

The satellite program’s likelihood for success was confirmed by China’s leading quantum-communications scientist, Pan Jianwei, a CAS academic who is also a professor of quantum physics at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei, in the eastern province of Anhui. Pan said researchers reported significant progress on systems development after conducting experiments at a test center in Qinghai province, in the northwest

The satellite would be used to transmit encoded data through a method called quantum key distribution (QKD), which relies on cryptographic keys transmitted via light-pulse signals. QKD is said to be nearly impossible to hack, since any attempted eavesdropping would change the quantum states and thus could be quickly detected by data-flow monitors.

A satellite-based quantum-communications system could be used to build a secure information bridge between the nation’s capital and Urumqi, a city that’s the capital of the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the west, Pan said.

It’s likely the technology initially will be used to transmit sensitive diplomatic, government-policy and military information. Future applications could include secure transmissions of personal and financial data.

Plans call for China to put additional satellites into orbit after next year’s ground-breaking launch, Pan said, without divulging how many satellites might be deployed or when. He did say that China hopes to complete a QKD system linking Asia and Europe by 2020, and have a worldwide quantum-communications network in place by 2030.