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Telescope in a quantum communication ground station in Xinglong, China. Photo: Xinhua/Jin Liwang via Getty Images

A quantum key for encrypting and decrypting messages has been shared between two ground stations about 700 miles apart, a team of researchers in China reported this week.

Why it matters: It's the latest milestone in an effort to create a long-range and theoretically ultra-secure quantum communications network.

  • Researchers in the U.S., Singapore, Canada and elsewhere are trying to build similar systems but the team in China, led by Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, is at least several years ahead.

How it works: Photons can be entangled in pairs so that the state of one photon is tied to that of another no matter the distance between them.

  • Quantum cryptography leverages entanglement to distribute quantum keys for communications.
  • If there is an attempt to intercept a message sent with a quantum key, the photons would be altered and the key would no longer work.
  • Fiber optic cables can carry photons but only short distances so researchers want to use satellites to relay quantum keys between ground stations.

What they did: Building on past experiments, Pan and his colleagues report using China's Micius satellite — built specifically for basic research on quantum satellite communications — to send a quantum key that was shared between two newly built observatories.

  • Key advance: The satellite is a blind transmitter and has no information about the key.
  • Previously, the longest distance for distributing a quantum key on the ground was about 62 miles.
  • In the new paper, the researchers report increasing the efficiency of the transmission by four fold compared to previous experiments and decreasing the error rate (to about 4.5%).

What's new: The team reports using a model to extract an encryption key from a relatively small number of received quantum signals. "This new method seems to be a major improvement over the previous models," says Alexander Ling at the National University of Singapore's Centre for Quantum Technologies, who was not involved in the work. "If this new model can be confirmed by other scientists, it will be a major advance."

  • The researchers say the error rate is low enough that attempts to eavesdrop on the message would be detected from other noise, "enabling the realization of satellite-based entanglement quantum key distribution."

What's next: A global network would require a constellation of satellites to transmit entanglement signals around the globe, says Ling, who is working on creating quantum-enabled nanosatellites.

Go deeper: China takes the lead in building quantum data security networks

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Aug 26, 2020 - Technology

New federal centers announced for AI and quantum computing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The White House this morning announced over $1 billion to establish 12 new federal research centers dedicated to AI and quantum sciences.

Why it matters: The two fields are among the most important in emerging technology, and the new initiative will help the U.S. assert its international leadership in an increasingly competitive field that will impact everything from national security to climate change.

1 hour ago - Health

Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New data from South Africa suggests the Omicron variant spreads more than twice as quickly as the Delta variant, and that immunity from prior infection doesn't appear to protect a person very well against Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The findings are extremely preliminary, and there are still many open questions about how well vaccines work against the variant. But these initial breadcrumbs of data are helping the world begin to understand what it's up against.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
2 hours ago - Technology

AI could end foreign-language subtitles

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

AI companies are developing methods to translate and synthesize voices in ads, movies and TV.

Why it matters: The advances in voice synthesis could help fix bad movie dubbing — and they come as international content is becoming increasingly important to studios and streaming platforms as part of the globalization of entertainment.