The news seems straight from a science fiction novel. It does spring from quantum mechanics theory. Quantum computers are nearing reality. And China is leading the effort.
China has become the first country to send quantum keys – highly complex encryptions – from a satellite to a base on Earth, and to teleport light particles the other way.
In June Chinese scientists sent entangled light particles further than ever before. Entanglement is a phenomenon in which two or more particles can affect each other simultaneously regardless of distance. Entangled particles cannot be described independently of each other.
A practical application of this phenomenon is the ability to design an unhackable code so that secure data can be digitally transported without the possibility of anyone eavesdropping.
All private data, from bank accounts to social media pictures, are protected by “keys,” which are extremely complex mathematical codes transmitted between users and companies. However, these codes can be exploited if a hacker eavesdrops on these keys during transmission.
Quantum keys use quantum physics rather than math to encrypt data, making them impossible to hack by conventional computers. They also have the ability to alert authorities when someone tries to eavesdrop, said Pan Jianwei, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the chief physicist behind Micius, China photon catching satellite
In the latest quantum key experiment, photons – individual particles of light – created an optical link between a satellite and an observatory station in Xinglong, Hebei province.
Chinese scientists are also investigating one of the biggest mysteries of quantum mechanics known as quantum teleportation. In the experiment, Chinese scientists "spookily" transferred a photon on Earth to its satellite in space, without needing the object itself to move.
"Its effect is like the Star Trek teleporter," said Pan Jianwei, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the chief physicist behind this project. Pan explains it works by deconstructing a photon on Earth, then sending its extracted quantum information to satellite receivers via entangled link. Then an entangled photon in space downloads the information and takes on the complete identity of the original.
The best is yet to come
This experiment will have great theoretical research value in quantum science, as well as building a large-scale quantum internet and computation networks. But scientists are still centuries away from building a teleporter capable of transferring something as biologically complex as humans, Pan said.
The United States and Japan also have plans for quantum communication. Japan launched a microsatellite named SOCRATES in 2014, and it conducted its own quantum channel test in July.