China Launches The World's First Quantum Satellite Micius

It could lead to the holy grail of intelligence: 'Unhackable' messages.

16/08/2016 15:43 BST

China has launched the world’s first quantum-enabled satellite into space according to the country’s state media.

The Micius satellite contains experimental technology that could allow China to send ‘unhackable’ communications in the future.

So what exactly is a quantum-enabled satellite? Well it contains a laser that transmits a pair of entangled photons - minuscule sub-atomic particles of light - down to two separate base stations.

One half of the pair goes to one base station, the other to the second. Now this is where things get a bit odd.

Harry Bartlett via Getty Images
A photon laser.

These photons suffer from something known as the ‘observer effect’, which means that the moment anyone tries to intercept them, their quantum state is immediately changed.

Effectively what you’re doing is sending two halves of the same key, each one can then be used to unlock a message. However if anyone but the intended recipient tries to see what the key looks like, it’s changes its shape, making it useless.

It’s highly theoretical at present however if China can make it work, they’ll have effectively solved the one weakness of end-to-end encryption.

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At present keys that are sent can technically be intercepted and then used to decode a message, if the keys were self-destructing though this would make them virtually impossible to hack.

As the BBC points out this isn’t actually the first time quantum-enabled communications have been tried, in fact there are already successful examples of it working down on land.

What makes this launch special however is being able to send the keys over vast distances, and from space.

Oh and then there’s the small fact that you’re sending those keys, via laser to what is effectively a tiny bullseye down on the ground. Targeting will need to be astronomically precise.

China is working alongside Austria as backers for the experiment which will be titled Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS).