China’s quantum satellite adds two new tricks to its repertoire

Tibetan ground station

A record-breaking quantum satellite has again blown away the competition, achieving two new milestones in long-distance quantum communications through space.

In June, Chinese researchers demonstrated that the satellite Micius could send entangled quantum particles to far-flung locations on Earth, their properties remaining intertwined despite being separated by more than 1,200 kilometers. Now researchers have used the satellite to teleport particles’ properties and transmit quantum encryption keys. The result, reported in two papers published online July 3 and July 4 at arXiv.org, marks the first time the two techniques have been demonstrated in space.

In quantum teleportation, the properties of one particle are transferred to another. The scientists first sent particles of light, or photons, from the ground to the satellite — a distance of up to 1,400 kilometers. When the researchers made particular measurements of other photons on the ground, the spacefaring particles took on the properties of the landlubbers, thanks to quantum entanglement between the earthbound and satellite-based particles. Although it’s a far cry from the Star Trek variety of teleportation, the process is an important ingredient of quantum communication.

Quantum key distribution is a method of creating a secret string of random numbers that can be used to encrypt communications. The researchers beamed photons from the satellite to Earth over distances of up to 1,200 kilometers, using the photons’ polarization, the orientation of their electromagnetic waves, to transmit a string of random numbers with utmost security.

Quantum communication via satellite can reach greater distances than land-based transmission, because in space, particles don’t get absorbed by the atmosphere. The new results pave the way for a global quantum internet that would provide for ultrasecure communications and allow quantum computers to work together.