China today successfully launched its quantum satellite – the first in the world.
The encryption technology it carries can put Beijing far ahead of its rivals in the global race for hack-proof communication.
Weighing over 600 kg, the satellite took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gobi Desert, aboard a Long March-2D rocket at 1:40 am, Xinhua reported.
The satellite will circle the Earth once every 90 minutes after it enters a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 500 km.
It is nicknamed "Micius," after a fifth century BC Chinese philosopher and scientist who has been credited as the first one in human history conducting optical experiments, the report said.
In its two-year mission, the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) is designed to establish "hack-proof" quantum communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to the ground and provide insights into the strangest phenomenon in quantum physics - quantum entanglement.
Quantum communication boasts of ultra-high security as a quantum photon can neither be separated nor duplicated.
It is hence impossible to wiretap, intercept or crack the information transmitted through it. A quantum key is formed by a string of random numbers generated between two communicating users to encode information.
Once intercepted or measured, the quantum state of the key will change, and the information being intercepted will self- destruct.
With the help of the new satellite, scientists will be able to test quantum key distribution between the satellite and ground stations, and conduct secure quantum communications between Beijing and Xinjiang's Urumqi.
QUESS, as planned, will also beam entangled photons to two earth stations, 1,200 kms apart, in a move to test quantum entanglement over a greater distance, as well as test quantum teleportation between a ground station in Ali prefecture in Tibet, and itself.
"The newly-launched satellite marks a transition in China's role - from a follower in classic information technology (IT) development to one of the leaders guiding future IT achievements," Pan Jianwei, chief scientist of QUESS project with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) said.
By harnessing quantum entanglement, the quantum key technology is used in quantum communications, ruling out the possibility of wiretapping and perfectly securing the communication, the report said.
Scientists also plan to test quantum key distribution between QUESS and ground stations in Austria, Italy, Germany and Canada as they have expressed willingness to cooperate with China in future development of quantum satellite constellations, Pan said.
The scientists now are expecting quantum communications to fundamentally change human development in the next two or three decades, as there are enormous prospects for applying the new generation of communication in fields like defence, military and finance.
Quantum communications require an alignment system of the quantum satellite that is 10 times as accurate as that of an ordinary one and the detector on the ground can only catch one in every one million entangled photons fired, Zhu Zhencai, QUESS chief designer said.
What makes it much harder is that, at a speed of eight kms per second, the satellite flying over the earth could be continuously tracked by the ground station for merely a few minutes, scientists say.
"It will be like tossing a coin from a plane at 100,000 meters above the sea level exactly into the slot of a rotating piggy bank," said Wang Jianyu, QUESS project's chief commander.
Given the high sensitivity of QUESS, people could observe a match being lit on the moon from the Earth, Wang added.
After years of experimenting, Chinese scientists developed the world' s first-ever quantum satellite without any available reference to previous projects. Now they are waiting to see QUESS's performance in operation, the report said.
According to Pan, his team has planned to initiate new projects involving research on quantum control and light transmission in space station, as well as tests on quantum communications between satellites, all-time quantum communications and the application of quantum key network.
"If China is going to send more quantum communication satellites into orbit, we can expect a global network of quantum communications to be set up around 2030," Pan added.
(With agency input)