Quantum Computing and the New Space Race

    Nayef Al-Rodhan

    Security, Asia

    Concept portrayal of China's Mars probe released on August 23, 2016 by lunar probe and space project center of Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence. China Daily/via REUTERS

    Great powers need to think more seriously of the challenges that the final frontier will pose.  

    IN JANUARY 2017, Chinese scientists officially began experiments using the world’s first quantum-enabled satellite, which will carry out a series of tests aimed at investigating space-based quantum communications over the course of the next two years. The satellite is the first of its kind and was officially launched in August 2016 from the Gobi Desert. The satellite—named Micius after the Chinese scientist and philosopher—was developed by Chinese and Austrian scientists within the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) project. The project has drawn attention from experts and media outlets across the globe, as quantum-enabled satellites could provide the infrastructure for future hack-proof communication networks. At a moment when cyberattacks are carried out with increasing ease, improving the security of communications is crucial for guaranteeing the protection of sensitive information for states, private entities and individuals. For states, securing communications also entails strategic geopolitical advantages. What are the possible implications of quantum-enabled satellite technology, in the context of current global security issues and China’s expanding engineering capabilities in space and elsewhere?

    Until now, most technology has been based on classical laws of physics (Newtonian and others). Modern communication technology uses radio waves, which transfer data encrypted with complex mathematical algorithms. The complexity of these algorithms ensures that third parties have a hard time cracking them. However, with stronger computing power and the increasing sophistication of hacking technologies, such methods of communication are increasingly vulnerable to interference.

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