Quantum Science Finding its Way Into Satellite Technology

By Laura Heckmann

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Quantum technology might evoke science fiction tropes like shrinking humans and time travel, but experts think it has real-world applications to secure and improve space systems.

“Unfortunately, quantum is still, for some people, part of sci-fi, but actually we are using quantum technology in space already,” Sana Amairi-Pyka, lead scientist for quantum communications at the Technology Innovation Institute in Abu Dhabi, said during a panel discussion at the Dubai Airshow’s Space Pavilion in November.

The quantum technology of everyday use, such as in smartphones and personal computers, is what Markus Krutzik, head of joint lab integrated quantum sensors at Ferdinand-Braun-Institut, Leibniz-Institut für Höchstfrequenztechnik in Berlin, called first-generation quantum technology.

At the beginning of the 20th century, quantum mechanics and laws of quantum physics were being formulated, he said. Now, they’re being transferred into technology.

Quantum mechanics in simple terms is the field of physics that explains how extremely small objects have the characteristics of both tiny pieces of matter, called particles, and a disturbance that transfers energy, called waves.

The study and application of their interactions, down to the atomic and subatomic level, is aimed at more efficient and powerful processing, such as quantum computing. Quantum computing uses a basic unit of information called qubits instead of a digital computing’s binary codes to perform faster and more effectively.

Krutzik develops optical clocks and quantum sensors, “especially for … operation in space,” he said. Clocks are one example of what quantum technology could bring to space: enhanced navigation.

Quantum sensors utilize quantum mechanics to improve accuracy by sensing changes in motion and electric and magnetic fields. The technology eliminates GPS vulnerabilities such as drifting and atmospheric disruptions.

“When you open up your phone and you find the next restaurant, you see … your little blue point, which is giving you a position on the map. And that’s actually based on optical clocks, which are orbiting around our planet,” he explained. “And with quantum technologies, maybe we have the solution to help to increase the position on such navigational devices.”

James Grieve, director of quantum communications at the Technology Innovation Institute, said using sensing technology and clocks for enhanced navigation is “really interesting,” and “we should probably be doing these things right now.”

Currently, a machine in Singapore can detect local gravity with a gravimeter based on quantum physics. Called gravity mapping, the process uses quantum sensing to detect anomalies in gravity fields.

Alexander Ling, associate professor of physics at the National University of Singapore, said the machine has already been deployed in Singapore to help the Energy Market Authority use gravity mapping to find geothermal energy sources underground.

While classical search gravimeters can be used to conduct these searches, they tend to drift, causing inaccurate data, he said. A quantum gravimeter can serve as a calibration station, “so your classical gravimeters that are deployed will come back regularly to be calibrated before being deployed again. And that allows you to build up a really highly accurate map of a particular region.”

Ling said he believes this technology could be used in space — if there is enough risk appetite to “[put] one of these things directly on a satellite.”

In addition to more accurate navigation, quantum technology could also strengthen security in space — an area the U.S. Space Force has called a “significant challenge.”

A random number generator is a piece of technology “we already use a lot in cybersecurity,” Ling said, but can now be made “very small, very compact, running on physical principles based on quantum mechanics.”

Grieve displayed a random number generator developed at the Technology Innovation Institute, small enough to fit on a keychain.

“So, this is the kind of size and scale of maturity we can make some of these devices, and this is based on quantum photonic principles,” he said. The generator is not yet space qualified, he said, “but I think if there’s interest, we could easily do this.”

The generator is one of four quantum-backed security projects Grieve is working on within the quantum communications lab at the institute, including quantum key distribution and a ground station that will connect to global quantum networks by receiving signals from orbiting quantum satellites.

Quantum key distribution is a secure communication method for exchanging encryption keys between two parties, and is more secure “because the laws of quantum mechanics make it random” and provide “very strong durability guarantees,” he said. “We don’t think it’s possible for any technology developed by humans in the future to retroactively attack the system. So, it’s the best way we know to secure communications.”

The reason quantum encryption is more secure than regular encryption is because it relies on the laws of physics rather than mathematics.

Robert Bedington, co-founder and chief technology officer of Singapore-based company SpeQtral, said they are already demonstrating secure quantum technology that can work in space.

Among SpeQtral’s technology is a commercial quantum key distribution satellite, with laser communications and entanglement-based quantum key distribution, meaning it can enable secure communication in trusted, node-free networks over long distances.

“And we’re moving now from that physics experiment into developing systems that can distribute keys securely around the world to protect global communications against this threat of quantum computers,” Bedington said.

Krutzik said quantum sensing technology is also being used on some rockets and on the International Space Station as part of the Cold Atom Lab. Germany has activity dating back 20 to 25 years focused on paving the way for quantum technologies in space, he added.

Until now, many efforts have been focused on Earth observation, but Krutzik said “there are many articles already written up and assessed where you can see that the sensitivity of such missions using quantum sensors will be improved dramatically and also in specific frequency ranges” as the technology transitions into space.

That transition is what is taking the first generation into the next, Grieve said — “figuring out other things we can do with these technologies.”

And the more compact, inexpensive and robust the technology, “the wider the ecosystem of possible applications,” he added.

While Ling said an appetite for risk is a prerequisite for accomplishing that, another is standardization.

“It’s not just in cybersecurity we need standardization, but I can also tell you that a lot of the technology demonstrators that we have managed to achieve in Singapore … would not have been possible if the satellites were not standardized,” Ling said.

Using a standardized form factor of cube satellites to demonstrate quantum technology means “your insides are sort of well understood, how you interconnect them,” Ling said. “And so this allows small university teams to actually take on very challenging technology experiments because you’re working towards a standard, working in a space where there are no constraints.”

The standards also allow cheap access to space launches, he said. In 2013, Ling’s team attempted to launch its first experiment in space, working with a Danish satellite group to put an instrument into a cube satellite.

“Unfortunately, the rocket blew up, so we didn’t get into space,” he said. “But 12 months later, we managed to launch another instrument on another cube satellite. Now, can you imagine in a traditional space mission … a turnaround time in 12 months to build a new instrument? And this is only possible because we have standards in cube satellites. These standards [are] going to be important as we try to combine very exciting technologies from both quantum and new space together.”

And it’s going to be a collaborative effort, Krutzik said.

“I think we share similar issues, which are challenging factors which you can solve with engineering,” he said. “There are key components which we all need in these applications.”

Lasers, for example — at specific wavelengths with specific performance criteria, “which space hardens,” he said. “So we need lasers, we need electronics, we need vacuum systems. That’s pretty much classical technology, but it needs to be integrated and hardened in a way that it reliably works in space.”

That means getting it outside of a laboratory, he said.

“You can show that all this technology and the systems work in … the laboratory, but if you want to bring this up to space, you need to push technology developments,” he said.

Government has a role to play in making that happen, but just what that looks like is still being defined.

Grieve said there is “plenty of government support” for development work such as satellites and clocks, and while quantum technology is expensive from a developmental perspective, for the end user, “devices don’t necessarily have to be expensive.”

What would be nice, he said, is to have a transition plan that moves these technologies out into the private sector after development. “So, governments will of course fund development, but moving past that, if you want to have some kind of sustainable industry based on these devices, we have to identify use cases. And we have to bring in users and see how these technologies can benefit real activities that actually matter to society.”

Connecting the right people to accomplish this is one of “many challenges,” he said — “trying to bring people who … have potential use cases, where we think they might have a use case, or … trying to do exploratory work and have these conversations to see where some of these technologies make sense.”

Whether or not this problem falls on the government to solve, “I’m not 100 percent sure,” he said. “But as a sort of manager of the community, it would be nice to have government assistance in trying to make these connections.”

With so many variables at play, quantum technology’s success in space will come down to the “level of appetite,” Grieve said. “A lot of people here are very excited about space. … It’s refreshing. It’s encouraging, and it’s the kind of environment in which we hopefully will see lots of very excited young engineers coming into the field and trying to ask what they could do.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said perimeter instead of gravimeter.



Topics: Research and Development, Space

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