China launched the world’s first quantum-communication satellite on August 15, 2016, from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. (Image Credit: Xinhua/Jin Liwang)


Chinese researchers have created a new and improved protocol for quantum communication. This allows them to send a quantum-encrypted message from a low-orbit satellite to ground-based stations over larger distances than other communication methods. The improvement could revolutionize how we encrypt and share sensitive data, keeping people’s information safe while cybersecurity threats are on the rise. The team published their findings in the journal Nature.


Quantum communication, also called quantum key distribution, encodes data by using the laws of physics. This allows two parties to send encrypted data through particles called qubits. Quantum properties of qubits are linked in pairs, which are generated in a random sequence. These pairs shared between two devices spell out a secret phrase, which encrypts a follow-up data transmission. 


Quantum communications operate by using single photons encoded in a quantum superposition state, where particles function similarly to waves. After they become encoded, the photons get transmitted to faraway locations. This encoding and decoding mechanism is utilized between two distant parties that share a string of random bits known as secret keys. These are then used to encrypt and decrypt secret messages.


In their experiment, the researchers used a low-orbit satellite called Micius to downlink data to an optical ground station. The first quantum communication satellite, Micius, launched in 2016 and has stayed in low-earth orbit, flying at 18,000 miles per hour.


Pairs of entangled photons generated aboard the Micius satellite are separated and distributed by two bidirectional downlinks to two observatories located in Delingha and Nanshan, China, which are 756 miles apart from each other.


The experiment increased the distance between the two parties. In earlier attempts, quantum messages were transmitted from 62 miles, but now they can be sent at a distance of 756 miles. The dramatic increase of the distance is due to the data traveling through empty space and less interference caused by different materials on Earth.


This experiment first started in 2017, when quantum communication had just started growing. In September 2017, China initiated the world’s first long-distance quantum communication landline, which connected Beijing with Shanghai.


Quantum communication has been regarded as the next gen-standard in data exchange, offering a new and extremely secure way to share sensitive data around the world. This experiment is a step towards the development of a secure, hacker-proof global system that allows people to share encrypted data.


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